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From Parsha to Halakha: Toldot Halakhic approaches to guiding a wayward son

Kislev 5784 | November 2023


“The boys grew, and Esav became a man of hunting, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a wholesome man who dwelled in the tents.”[1]

The twins were distinct from birth – Esav with his red mane of hair, Yaakov clutching his heel. They grow to be different – Esav is out hunting and in the fields; Yaakov dwells in the tents – the traditional description of a shepherd. But in the middle they share the description, “Va’yigdilu ha’na’arim,” “The boys grew.”

The midrash expounds on the two words that summarize their transition from infants to adults:

“Rabbi Levi taught that this is like a myrtle and ruscus (also known as butcher’s broom or Jew’s myrtle) growing next to each other – indistinct until they are grown when the myrtle gives a pleasant smell while the ruscus gives thorns and no fragrance. So too, for thirteen years Yaakov and Esav went to school together, but once they reached majority Yaakov went to the Beit Midrash and Esav to houses of idol worship.”[2]

This midrash appears to indicate that the boys were indistinct when they were young. Considering the descriptions preceding and following these words, could this possibly be the midrash’s point of view?

A failure to educate

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this midrash is not describing the boys’ identical nature, but rather the identical nurture they received. Their natures were disparate so their education should have been tailored to their different temperaments, as Mishlei instructs, “Chanokh la’na’ar al pi darko,” “Educate a child according to their way.”[3] The midrash is not a critique of Esav, but of Yitzchak and Rivkah’s parenting.

“Every child needs to be guided and directed according to a uniquely appointed path, a path that fits the traits and predispositions buried in the depths of their personality. This is how they must be educated, as a person and as a Jew. While the task of an adult Jew is essentially the same, the ways to fulfill it are many and varied, like people’s many and varied character traits and ways of life.”[4]

Rav Hirsch notes that when Yaakov’s children gathered around him for their blessings they were seen as unique individuals who all had something to offer the collective; each contributed in their own way to the paramount task, “to fulfill the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.” This only works when each child is valued as an individual and educated accordingly.

“The type of education that suits a student like Yaakov and a student like Esav at the same desk, with the same schedule and same way of learning, raising both to a life of study and deep thought, will end up ruining one of them… the ‘Esav’ will just look forward to the day he can throw away the old books, and with them the great mission of his life, of which he only learned one aspect, a rejected path that was completely antithetical to his nature.”

Rav Hirsch was not only speaking about Esav, he was addressing parents and educators at a time when the hoards of precious Jewish individuals were turning away from the path of Torah and halakhic observance. Unfortunately, our community still has a ways to go until we invest what is needed into individualizing our children’s education, and we are paying the price.

The wayward son

The midrash continues: “Rabbi Elazar taught: A man must take care of his son for thirteen years, from then on, he must say, ‘Barukh she’ptarani mei’onsho shel zeh’ (Blessed [is the one] who released me from this one’s punishment).”[5]

Based on this midrash some fathers have a custom to recite this blessing when their son becomes bar mitzvah – reaches the age of mitzvot when he is liable for his own actions.[6] Ran, Rif, and Rambam don’t mention this blessing, and neither does the Shulkhan Arukh, but Rema notes that Maharil recorded the custom, indicating that the practice was not widespread, but was observed in Ashkenaz. While Maharil stated the custom was to recite a proper blessing, Rema thought it preferable to omit shem and malkhut (God’s name and sovereignty “ata Hashem Elokeinu Melekh Ha-olam”) because the blessing is not mentioned in the Talmud.[7]

 There is no clear halakhic preference – some do not say the blessing, some recite it with shem and malkhut, and some without. The different practices are not associated with specific communities or areas.

Why is this blessing recited at this time?

Magen Avraham brings two opposing explanations for this blessing – until the son reaches majority the father is liable when his son sins – not for the sin itself, but for neglecting his obligation of chinukh, educating his child.[8] Alternatively, according to the Levush it is the son who may be punished for his father’s sins before he reaches thirteen.[9] Consequently, Mordechai explained that the son is the one who makes the blessing, as he declares his independence.[10]

Arukh HaShulchan teaches that both reasons apply – when a child sins before they reach the age of mitzvot their father is punished for failing to educate them properly, at the same time, he brings an opinion that a father’s sins may cause the death of a child under the age of bar mitzvah. When the child reaches the age of mitzvot they are judged independently.

Some halakhic authorities question whether this blessing also applies to daughters, or to mothers.[11] Kaf HaChaim rules it is not recited because the daughter is subject to her father’s authority until she moves to her husband’s home – as long as he has power over her he is obligated in her chinukh.[12] Several other explanations also indicate that the custom limits the blessing to fathers and sons based on societal norms that may not be relevant today. Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef explains that since we rule fathers are obligated in their daughter’s chinukh, they should recite the blessing without shem and malkhut.[13]

Are parents responsible for educating their children after the age of mitzvot?

As we saw, Magen Avraham believed that a father is not punished for his minor son’s sins, but rather for his failure to educate the child and prevent such misdeeds. Mishna Berura teaches that a father’s mitzvah of chinukh ends when his son reaches bar mitzvah, but afterwards the father is still obligated in the mitzvah of tochakha, admonishing misdeeds.[14]

Is the job of a parent done once the child reaches majority?

Rav Asher Weiss teaches that there are different mitzvot of chinukh. The Torah mitzvah of “limmud Torah” – Torah study – includes the mitzvah a father has to teach his son. The rabbinic mitzvah of chinukh is to introduce children to mitzvah observance, teaching them how to perform different mitzvot when they reach the appropriate developmental stage. This ends when the child reaches halakhic majority.

There is also a Torah mitzvah of chinukh – parents are commanded to raise their children to have awe and love of God, and to follow God’s ways through Torah and mitzvah observance. The Torah tells us that God knows Avraham “so that he will command his sons and household after him to keep the way of the Eternal to do righteousness and justice.”[15] Although this is not phrased as a commandment, Rav Weiss explains that we have an obligation to fulfill the will of God, and this is clearly the will of God. Therefore, it applies equally to fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.

The Torah mitzvah of chinukh is significantly broader than the rabbinic mitzvah, and it does not have a cutoff date.  “Chinukh according to the Torah is until old age, as long as the parent has the power to positively influence their children.”[16]

This may explain why Rabbi Elazar brings the blessing of “Baruch she’ptarani” here, in relation to Esav, and specifically as a continuation of the midrash that Esav did not display negative traits until he was grown. Does this mean his parents gave up on him or no longer saw themselves as responsible?

This seems highly unlikely. It’s more likely that Rabbi Elazar is telling us that the ONLY difference in the parent-child relationship before bar mitzvah and after is the liability of the parties; even though parents are no longer punished for their child’s sins, they’re still responsible for their children’s chinukh.

The Torah tells us that Yitzchak and Rivka disapproved of Esav’s wives, but they did not reprimand him. Why didn’t they speak up?

A failure to communicate

The Netziv does not believe that Yitzchak and Rivka failed to see the differences between their children or that they failed to appropriately educate Esav. He explains that Yitzchak and Rivka saw the differences between their children. Both knew that Yaakov was the spiritual successor of Avaraham and Yitzchak, that he was committed to following God.[17]

They differed in their regard for Esav. Rivka rejected him for what he wasn’t, but Yitzchak loved Esav for what he saw him to be – a person who acted with kindness and served his father with respect.[18] Yaakov focused on the spiritual realm. Esav was a man of this world. Yitzchak knew Esav did not follow God’s precepts, but he believed that Esav was moral and that he acted with chessed (kindness) – not because God told him to, but because it was part of the social contract.[19]

Yitzchak believed that when such actions do not stem from a desire to fulfill God’s will they are rewarded in this world, not the next. Since Yaakov had such a strong connection to God Yitzchak did not think he or his progeny would divorce their acts of chessed from their service of God, so he wanted to give the blessing that focused on this world to Esav, a man of this world. Rivka, on the other hand, understood that some of Yaakov’s children may be heretics, but they would still be kind people, and she wanted them to be blessed with material abundance.[20]

We might say that Yitzchak was an idealist and Rivka was a pragmatist; Yitzchak believed both his sons and their children would become the best versions of themselves, Rivka prepared for what happened if they did not live up to their potential.

Yet, as opposed to other foremothers who spoke their mind to their husbands, Rivka does not confront Yitzchak about his plan to bless Esav. Netziv explains that Rivka couldn’t find the courage to share her opinions with Yitzchak because she was always a bit in awe of him, ever since their first meeting.[21]

This may explain why they did not speak to Esav about his choice of wife. Since he turned his back on a relationship with God and would not be a part of what would become the Jewish People, there was no reason he shouldn’t marry Canaanite women. While it pained them to see their son abandon this duty, they could not control his actions and admonishing him would probably have pushed him farther away.

Rav Asher Weiss discusses how to treat children who are negligent with their mitzvah observance:[22]

“Based on our point of view, when we think that forcing children exactingly to observe mitzvot will drive them further from the ultimate goal it is preferable to be flexible with them and educate them to rejoice in mitzvah observance, there is no obligation to admonish or hit them.”

Indeed, after Esav sees that Yitzchak blessed Yaakov again and instructed him not to take a Canaanite wife he takes one of Yishmael’s daughters as a wife. “Esav saw that the Canaanite daughters were bad in Yitzchak’s eyes…” Rivka is not mentioned here. She turned her back on Esav, and he turned his back on her. But even after Yitzchak gave “his” blessing to Yaakov, Esav still wanted to please his father who always encouraged his good qualities and treated him with compassion.

We can only wonder what would have been had Yitzchak’s chinukh persevered.

Final thoughts

Some of what we’ve discussed should not be novel – most parents intuitively understand that chinukh is more than modeling concrete behaviors and that it is a lifelong commitment. Many educators and parents talk about the importance of “chanokh l’na’ar al pi darko” – educating children according to their way. What too many fail to understand is that this can’t be done without getting to know the child as an individual – their temperament, their strengths, what drives them, as well as their challenges and rebellions.

This is precisely what the Netziv and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch teach us in their explanation of what went wrong. Parents need to see their children, accept them for who they are, and try to encourage their good traits. Too many children are turned off when they feel rejected, or their flaws are constantly pointed out.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein spoke about educating children.[23] He taught that there were no detailed halakhot of chinukh because it can’t and shouldn’t be regulated in such a way; chinukh must always be adapted to suit the child and the circumstances.

Rav Lichteinstein emphasized that the bedrock of this enterprise is built on the parent-child relationship. It’s not that parents should spend time with their children and take an interest in them just so the children will follow them on a path of Torah and mitzvot, parents should want to do this anyway. But if a parent does not take an interest in their child’s world, the child may not be interested in the parent’s world.

Throughout this article we’ve discussed parents and children, but if we look back to Rav Asher Weiss’s source for the Torah mitzvah of chinukh, it is once again broader than we may have thought. God developed a relationship with Avraham because he knew that Avraham would teach God’s ways of righteousness and justice to “his children and his household.”

Who is his household? The “souls they made in Charan” – the people who worked for Avraham and Sarah, the people who learned from them and joined the cause of ethical monotheism. Even before Avraham and Sarah were blessed with children, they were busy with the mitzvah of chinukh. Not everyone is blessed with children, but that shouldn’t stop us from fulfilling the Torah mitzvah of chinukh chinukh, from reaching out to our households and our communities to help people find their individual path to serve God – one person at a time, one connection at a time.

[1] Bereishit 25:27

[2] Bereishit Rabba 63:10

[3] 22:6

[4] Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch on the Torah (translation mine, from the Hebrew)

[5] Bereishit Rabba 63:10

[6] Early sources, like Mordechai and Rema, only mention the age qualification, but Magen Avraham and later sources state that the blessing was customarily said when the son read from the Torah or led the congregation in prayer for the first time, at which time the community recognizes that he has reached halakhic majority.

[7] Darkei Moshe and Rema on OC 225:2. Beiur HaGra disagrees and teaches that the bracha is recited with shem and malchut, since it does appear in the midrash and in Maharil.

[8] As my colleague Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg discussed on Parshat Vayera, parents, and particularly the father, are obligated in the mitzvah of chinukh – to educate their children to follow the path of Torah and mitzvot. For a practical examination of the laws of chinukh see our teshuva on chinukh for mourning during the Three Weeks.

[9] OC 225 based on Devarim 5:9

[10] Siftei Cohen on the Torah, Lech Lecha

[11] These questions are compounded by disputes as to whether a mother is obligated in her children’s chinukh and if there’s an obligation of chinukh for raising daughters. Most halakhic authorities agree that there is some sort of mitzvah of chinukh, but some differentiate between men and women. See discussions on TB Sukka 2a-b, Nazir 29b (Commentary of Rabbeinu Avraham min HaHar) and Yoma 82 (Tosfot Yeshainim), Magen Avraham OC 343:1.

[12] Kaf HaChaim OC 225:15

[13] Yabia Omer OC VI 29

[14] The mitzvah of tochakha applies to all of Israel, but Chazal (the Talmudic sages) teach that someone who has the power to protest the actions of their household members and does not is caught in their sin. (TB Shabbat 54b)

[15] Bereishit 18

[16] Minchat Asher II 48 1-2; Parshat VaEyra 83

[17] 28:

[18] Ha’amek davar 25:28 and 26:34.

According to the midrash Esav was an idol worshipper, but there is no hint of this in the text. Indeed, while there are hints to a certain personality type, Esav’s sins are limited to upsetting his parents by marrying Canaanite women.

This may be the reason  Netziv describes him as similar to a secular Jew – he is kind and moral, but he does not have a relationship with God. When these midrashim were written secularism was rare, when Netziv wrote it was rampant.

Esav’s intention to murder Yaakov after the latter stole his blessing may reveal a darker side but may also be an example of his explosive and impetuous nature. We do not know if he would have gone through with it, given the opportunity.

[19] The Netziv brings several examples to prove his point, including that Yitzchak instructed Esav to prepare the game in his home because he didn’t trust food prepared in Esav’s kitchen

[20] For example, see Netziv Ha’Amek Davar and Herkhev Davar on Chapter 27 verses 1, 3, 4, 19, 27, 28, 35. He also explains that when such actions are based solely on God’s command, and don’t also contain the aspect of a social contract they are only rewarded in the World to Come. He further teaches that Yaakov could only receive this blessing by stealing it since it fits Esav’s attributes and not Yaakov’s. Kindness divorced from God belongs to other nations and is not intrinsic to Israel.

[21] See Bereishit 24:62-67 and Ha’amek Davar verse 65. The Torah goes out of its way to describe the first time they meet – Rivka sees Yitzchak coming from Be’er Lechai Ro’i, from prayer or meditation in the fields, she falls from the camel and wonders, “Who is this man who is walking in the fields to meet us?” The servant tells her it’s his master and she covers her face with her scarf – out of embarrassment more than modesty. The Netziv explains that Rivka could see Yitzchak was a holy person, and she didn’t feel she was worthy of him. Throughout their relationship this awe is always present, and it prevents her from confronting him. According to the Netziv, this was part of the Divine plan, God wanted Yaakov to get the blessings in this way.

[22] Ibid. Note: He is specifically referring to minor children.

[23] “On Raising Children”

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.