Rabbi David Kalb, Director of Jewish Education for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y, continues his series of guest blogs below, with another post on the weekly Torah portion.
This week’s Parshah (Torah Portion) describes the lives of Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau), the twin sons of Yitzchak (Isaac), the third generation of the Jewish people. Once again, the question will be; which brother will be the one chosen to be the next leader of the Jewish people? In the end it is Yaakov who is selected. The great French Medieval commentator Rashi points out on Bereshit/Genesis 25:27 that Esav was an idle worshipper, and Yaakov chose a life of Jewish learning. This is obviously why Yaakov was selected as the leader.
How could it be that Esav, the grandson of Avraham (Abraham); who was the founder of Judaism, who brought the concept of monotheism to the world, and the person who God chose to establish the Brit (Covenant); how could Esav choose to worship idols? How could it be that Esav, who had Yitzchak (Isaac) as a father and Rivka (Rebecca) as a mother, the second couple to represent the Covenant turn out this way? Lastly, as already mentioned, Yaakov ends up becoming one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people. One of the ways the Jewish people are known is as Kehilat Yaakov, (The Community of Jacob). Later, Yaakov will receive a new name from God, Yisrael (Israel), and that will become our name and the name of our homeland. Yet his twin brother Esav not only does not become the leader of the Jewish people, but he chooses a life of idol worship. Why did Esav choose this path?
From the very beginning of their lives the Torah describes the two boys in very different ways. Bereshit/Genesis 25:27. “The youths grew up, and Esav was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was a man of purity, dwelling in tents.” Rashi comments on this verse that the twins were virtually indistinguishable until they reached the age of thirteen, at which point Esav chose to engage in idol worship, and Yaakov chose to pursue Jewish learning.
The commentary the Siftei Chachamim, points out on the same line that Esav received the same exact Jewish education as Yaakov. This is where the problem lies. You do not educate an Esav in the same way you educate a Yaakov. For Yaakov, the way of the Beit Midrash (the study hall) pouring over Jewish texts all day was perfect. However, for Esav not only would an intensive regiment of daily text study not work, it would be the worst thing you could do for him. It would be the exact formula to turn Esav off to Judaism, and that is exactly what happened.
You can not keep someone like Esav couped up all day in a Yeshiva (a school of higher Jewish learning). Esav should have been brought out to the great outdoors, into the forests, and taught Tehilim/Psalms 104:24 “Ma Rabu Maasecha Hashem” – “How great are Your creations God!” – To see what God was all about in nature. Through seeing the beauty of the trees, rivers and mountains; that is where Esav would have found God and gotten turned on to Judaism.
This is a mistake that is often made in Jewish education; many Jewish educational institutions assume there is a one-size-fits-all approach for all types of people. However, that is not the case. There should be the Yaakov approach for people who want the intellectual rigor of intensive texts study, but there also needs to be many other approaches as well. We need to find the right approach for every student. Jewish After School Educational programs, as well as Jewish Day Schools, need to engage in differentiated education, finding the right path for every single student.
In Mishlei (Proverbs 22:6) it says “Chanoch linaar al pi darcho” – “Educate a child according to his/her way.” The great Chasidic Master, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in the Introduction to his book Chovat Hatalmidim (A Student’s Obligation), based on this verse in Mishlei is critical of teachers who do not find the right approach for every student and advocates the importance of looking at every student, and seeing which form of education is right for them. He says:
Someone who is trying to educate through command and habituation need not pay any attention to [their] child or student-to [their] nature, to the way [they] think, or to [their] other distinguishing characteristics. The command itself: do this or do that, is all that is needed. Nor is it necessary to deal with each student separately. A single command can suffice for an entire age group, for it is not the student or the child that is important, but the person giving commands: [they have] commanded, and that is everything. An educator, however, who [wishes] … to help [a student] grow [will] ignite [within their student a] heavenly fire, upwards, towards the holy, so that the student’s entire being, including [their] physical body, will increase in holiness and will long for God’s Torah, such an educator must adapt [themselves] attentively to the student, … [Thus the teacher can help their student to] emerge, blossom, and grow.
The Torah states that every human being is created Bselem Elokim, in the image of God (Bereshit/Genesis 1:27). The Talmud in Sanhedrin 37a derives a number of basic qualities every human inherently has, based on this concept. One of those qualities is uniqueness. In other words, according to the Talmud, since every person is created Bselem Elokim, by definition every person is unique. Therefore, if every person is unique, that means in the context of Jewish education, and for that matter, any form of education. Every person needs to be educated in the way that is unique to him or her. To not educate a person in such a way is to ignore and to devaluate the Bselem Elokim in every human being. To do that is to devaluate God. I bless you all, that we all learn in the ways that are unique to ourselves, and that we teach in the ways that are unique to every person that we meet.
You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by. And so become yourself, because the past is just a good bye. Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by. And feed them on your dreams, the one they picked, the one you’ll know by. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry, so just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.
Excerpted from the song “Teach Your Children”, music and lyrics by Graham Nash recorded by Crosby Stills Nash Young on the Déjà Vu album.