(Un)Conditional Love

Isaac and Rebekah provide us with two models of parenting--love dependent on a specific interaction and love that is unconditional.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

This week's portion, Toldot, contains the difficult story of the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau (Yaakov and Esav), seen by Jewish tradition as emblematic of the difficult relationship between Israel and the nations of the world--specifically Rome and Christianity--and the problematic handling of their rivalry by their parents, Isaac and Rebekah (Yizchak and Rivkah).

Early on, the Torah takes the poor parents somewhat off the hook, in that it describes the rivalry between the two brothers as something that began in the womb--can't blame faulty parenting here!

However, once they are born, after we are told of their apparently innate, natural differences (Esav is described as a hairy hunter, a man of the great outdoors, whereas Jacob is a smooth dweller of tents, which probably means he was a shepherd but is also understood to mean he was the contemplative, studious, brainy, indoor type), we are told that "Isaac loved Esav, for he ate of the food which he had hunted, and Rebekah loved Jacob." What a recipe for disaster!

Again and again, we are told of Isaac's love for the game that Esav hunted and brought to him. It seems clear that Isaac's love for Esav stems from, and is perhaps dependent on, this behavior on the part of Esav; he loves him because he respectfully and lovingly feeds him the food which he loves. Rebekah's love for Jacob, on the other hand, remains unexplained; she just loves him.

Stealing The Blessing

Ultimately, Jacob, egged on by his loving mother, steals his father's death-bed blessing, which was intended for Esav, by pretending to be Esav, even to the extent of, Esav-like, bringing Isaac some of the food he so loved. When Esav discovers that he has been robbed of his father's blessing, his hatred for Jacob is complete, and Jacob must skip the country to avoid being killed by him.

It is clear that Isaac's love for Esav and Rebekah's love for Jacob are central to the story, and it is these relationships which I would like to examine.

Why do parents love their kids? First of all, they don't always love them. More and more, we hear about neglectful, abusive parents, parents who clearly do not love their children. A good deal of recent academic thinking on the topic seems to be aimed at undercutting the traditional assumption of the naturalness and universality of parents' (and especially mothers') love for the child.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.