Reading parshat Toldot, we are reminded of the perils inherent in a dimmed and distorted view of parental roles.
It is understandable that parents believe their children will resemble them in both form and character. Parents may expect their children’s genetic makeup to be similar to theirs and assume that their talents and strengths will be transferred to their children through DNA.
Some parents can easily identify their children’s inherited abilities; however, children oftentimes are not miniature versions of their parents and manifest character traits and personality strains quite different from theirs.
As students of Tanach, we need not look far into our heritage to observe differences between parents and children. Yitzhak may have been as devoted to God as his father and mother were, but his social interactions with the community stand in contrast to Avraham’s far-reaching engagement with those outside of his family. Ishmael rebelled against his father, and his behavior was of great concern to his father’s household. Yaakov and Esau were not only antagonists who demonstrated extreme variations of character, they also developed behavioral patterns — some based on acquired traits and some based on individual dispositions — that created a chasm between them and their parents. This schism ultimately upended the unity of their family.
Studying character as it is presented in the Book of Bereishit, we find that each child-parent relationship and sibling relationship was profoundly affected by the growth or devolvement of the new generation. Personalities of each protagonist were always different from their parents’ and sometimes defied convention and expectations.
When studying the relationship between Yitzhak, Rivka, and their twins, some commentaries find fault in the way the twins were parented. They believe that a more thoughtful approach to raising children might have effected a different result. Clearly, we have no way of knowing what would have happened if Esau’s parents had been firmer with him (midrash), or whether Yitzhak and Rivka should have found a better balance between accountability and indulgence.
But there is one unequivocal lesson we can derive from the narrative. Parents must learn to recognize that their children can be very different from themselves and that each child can be different from their siblings; mothers and fathers must make every effort to define and identify each child’s profile. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch laments that Rivka and Yitzhak should have noticed their twins’ individual dispositions earlier and identified differentiated remediations. Dr. David Pelcovitz, a noted psychologist, argues that ego, self-focus, or pride may blur our vision when seeing our children and consequently create an illusion about their abilities and strengths.
Seeing children for who they are and what they are is the most fundamental responsibility of parenting. Yitzhak’s inability to see — “Vatehena einav melirot” “Yitzhak’s eyes were dimmed” — preceded and contributed to his decision to bless Esau with a unique blessing. My late father, Rabbi Schulem Rubin, explained that Isaac’s eyes were not dimmed nor was he handicapped; rather, his eyes were unable to see the reality of Esau’s demise. Whereas unconditional love is the foundation block for building a family, it cannot eclipse a realistic and constructive view of our children’s strengths and weaknesses.