Toldot: Raising Children

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

There is no greater challenge than that of raising refined children. It is a task with so many variables and fraught with such difficulty that many a wonderful home produces children who do not follow in the paths of their parents.

Ironically (but quite understandably), it often seems that the greater the parent, the more difficulty raising children to follow his or her example. It should be no surprise that only one of Abraham’s eight children followed in his path, and Yitzchak managed to successfully guide one of two.  Yaakov, the founder of b’nei Yisroel, had many difficulties with his children, to say the least. With the bar in spiritually great families set high, coupled with the natural instinct of children to try to escape the shadow of their parents, it is not surprising that many a child does not even try to reach such lofty standards. Raising children properly takes an inordinate amount of time, time that is not easy for our leaders to come by. It is for this reason that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader of all time, had to separate from his family: one hundred percent of his time was devoted to his greater family, the Jewish people, leaving none for his wife and children.

On the other hand, those who grow up in distinguished families are often given opportunities for success that are the envy of others.  Dynasties of great learned rabbis (or businessmen, for that matter) happen often because their families give them a head start in life. It is not uncommon for both high and low achievers to come from the same family; no better example is needed than that of Yaakov and Eisav, who grew up in the same wonderful family yet turned out so differently.

On one level, this is easily understood. Yitzchak, having experienced the akeidah, was transcendental, inhabiting a world few could understand. Even Rivka was awestruck—or perhaps fearful—when she first laid eyes on Yitzchak, as demonstrated by the way she covered her face.  Apparently, even his appearance was unique (see commentary of the Netziv to 24:65). For Yaakov, this was most inspirational, but for Eisav, such purity and distance from the "everyday" world was a turn-off. This is similar to teacher-student relationships: some are inspired by a teacher who is an authority figure, distant from his students, whereas others can only relate to a teacher who is "one of the boys".

It is this difference in the natures of Yaakov and Eisav to which our Sages allude in understanding the difficult pregnancy of Rivka. "And the children struggled inside her" (25:22) is seen as a metaphor for the struggle between the spiritual aspirations of Yaakov and the material ones of Eisav, already begun in the womb.

Yet whatever natural tendencies a child may have, there is time for parents to guide those natural tendencies to constructive purposes. "And the boys grew; Eisav became a skilled trapper, a man of the field, and Jacob was a scholarly man who dwelled in the tents" (25:27). Only when they reached the age of maturity (fifteen according to our Sages) did these natural tendencies come to the forefront, leading the way for a permanent split in the paths of Yaakov and Eisav.

Yitzchak and Rivka were unable to harness the natural energy of Eisav to produce a more constructive outcome. Why not? While many point to the favouritism displayed by Eisav’s parents, it is interesting that this favouritism is only recorded in the Biblical text after the children have matured and are heading in opposite directions. It thus appears there were additional root causes of this inability to guide Eisav.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (25:27), who was in many ways responsible for the day school system (so common today, but almost unheard of in his time), had a keen insight into the education of children.  He posits that Yitzchak and Rivka made the crucial (unintentional) error of raising and educating their children uniformly, ignoring at great cost the maxim to "educate each child in accordance with his own way" (Mishlei 22:6). Different children often require different approaches, different schools and different outlets. We all recognize this in theory; in practice, this is very difficult to do.

It is interesting to note that, from the time of the pregnancy and birth of these (identical?) twins to their "growing up" fifteen years later, the Torah is completely silent; alluding, it seems, to the nonintervention of their parents during these crucial years of development.

Yitzchak and Rivka thought that the wonderful home environment that they provided was enough to ensure the proper moral growth of the children. It would take Yitzchak, who could see no evil in others, many, many years to come to the realization that Eisav could no longer be part of the Jewish people.

Raising children requires insight, understanding and most importantly, flexibility. Even then, there are no guarantees. While our Patriarchs and Matriarchs spent much time praying for children, the Biblical text does not record their prayers to successfully raise those children. Perhaps they underestimated how difficult it would be. Let us use their hard-won knowledge, and pray that G-d helps us to do better.