Lessons on Childhood


The story of the birth of Esau and Jacob is as well-known as the birthright episode that separated them and made them enemies for most of their adult lives.

Jacob came out holding onto Esau’s ankle as though there was an in-utero wrestling match that occurred in order to be the older brother and secure the all-too important birthright. This, of course, gave way to the story of Jacob’s deceitful acquisition of said birthright from his brother.

Yet it is surprising and challenging that we know little about their childhood. This period in a child’s life is critical to their growth. I would imagine that the missing details are critical to understanding the scene that plays out once they are already grown, and everyone’s role in creating the deception. I wonder whether these gaps in the story were not as complimentary of Jacob, and therefore did not fit thematically in the Jewish narrative. Perhaps they got along beautifully, and it was their parents’ favoritism that caused the enmity of their older years. We will never know.

The Midrash imagines that Jacob spent his time studying Torah and that Esau spent his worshiping idols. Rabbinic literature also paints Esau as a hungry, meat-driven ignoramus, and his brother Jacob as a soft-spoken scholar more in control of his impulses. The picture painted is one in which Jacob is the hero and Esau is the villain. A clear-cut, black-and-white vision of their childhood emerges that almost gives Jacob the permission to buy the birthright and absolves him and his mother of responsibility. But I am forced to ask if it is really possible that Jacob was always perfect and Esau the troublemaker? Is any story of twin children and their characteristics such a zero-sum game?

I am blessed to be the parent of two middle school-age children. They are wildly different, and it is fair to say that each has their great moments and each their days which could be described as less than great. However, it is in both of these kinds of moments that our children grow and learn the invaluable lessons that they will need going forward. No child is perfect, and in fact it is often through their most challenging times that they learn more than when they are the apples of our proverbial eye.

Perhaps the exclusion of the childhood details in reference to Esau and Jacob is meant as a reminder. When we imagine exactly what transpired, given the stories we know from our text, it would be easy to imagine that Jacob was nearly perfect and Esau just shy of fully evil. But the reality of life and of raising children is that the details are never that black and white.

They all are, at alternate times, both incredible and impossible. When we, as parents, recognize both the good and the challenging pieces of them is when we can truly be full participants in their development, so that they all grow up to be the best possible versions of themselves.

Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg is senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

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