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What is A Proper Education? The Story of Jacob & Esau…Parashat Toldot


In this week’s Parashah of Toldot, we read the dramatic story of the birth of Ya’akov and Eisav (Jacob and Esau) and of the competition between them. One of the key verses (Bereshit: 25:27) says:

“The boys grew up. Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”

There is a famous midrash on that verse found in Bereshit Rabbah, chapter 63:

“And the boys grew up. Rabbi Pinchas said in Rabbi Levi’s name: They were like a myrtle and a wild rose bush growing side-by-side. When they attained maturity, one yielded its fragrance and the other its thorns. For 13 years both went to school and came home from school. After this age, one went to the house of study and the other to shrines of idolatry.”

In other words, according to this midrash, both of the children received exactly the same education, until at some point in their lives it became clear that they were very different from each other and perhaps should have received a different education.

This idea was reiterated in the 19th century by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the verse: “The deep difference between Abraham’s grandsons Esau and Jacob, its main source was not just in their characters but also in their deficient education (and he refers to Bereshit Rabbah). As long as they were young, Isaac and Rivka did not pay attention to the difference in their hidden characteristics. They gave both of them the same Torah and the same education, and they forgot a great principle in education חנוך לנער על פי דרכו  (Teach a child in accordance with his way). One must adjust education to his special path in the future, which fits his attributes.”

In other words, according to the midrash and according to Rabbi Hirsch, the mistake that Isaac and Rivkah made was that they gave both boys the exact same education even though they were very different from each other.

במחילה על כבודם,

with all due respect, I beg to differ with this interpretation.

I believe that the pshat, the simple meaning of the text, is that Isaac and Rivkah gave the boys very different educations. Regarding Rivkah and Jacob, it says that Jacob was איש תם  a mild man who stayed in camp. That is why later on in the story, when Rivkah wants Jacob to bring the meat to his father, she says (Bereshit 27:9): “Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids.”

In other words, the איש תם, the man in the tent, knows how to tend sheep.

And later on, in Chapter 30:32ff., Jacob becomes wealthy as a shepherd.

Similarly, Isaac brought up Esau as a hunter. It says in our verse (Bereshit 25:27), “behold Esau was a hunter, an outdoorsman.” And later on, what does Isaac say to Esau (Bereshit 27:3)? “Now take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go to the field and hunt me some game.” In other words, this was the way he had been brought up.

And finally, in Chapter 32:7, Esau meets Jacob with 400 men, i.e., 400 soldiers.

In other words, from the very beginning, the parents saw that these two children were very different; one was brought up as a shepherd and the other as a hunter.

Now let us return to the verse from Mishlei, Proverbs 22:6, which Rabbi Hirsch quotes:

חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה

The standard translation is, “Teach a child in the way he shall go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Professor Stephen Garfinkel of JTS published an article about this verse almost 30 years ago and he maintained, and I agree with him, that that is not the proper translation. Rather the verse should be translated: “Teach a child in accordance with his or her own way, and then when he grows older he will not depart from that path.”

In other words, the verse from Proverbs is saying that the correct way to teach children is “according to the path that is appropriate for that child.”

So it is for a teacher or educational institution: when you teach an adult or a child, you must teach them in the path that is appropriate for that particular person.

This is exactly what we have been doing at the Schechter Institutes since 1984.

We run many different programs some for adults, some for teenagers, and some for young children. Some of them are in Israel, some are in Ukraine, but the guiding principle is חנוך לנער על פי דרכו, we must teach each adult, each child according to the path that is appropriate for them.

That, I believe, is the ideal in Jewish education.


Shavua Tov from Schechter!

(image: The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1625, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, National Galleries Scotland, Photo: Antonio Reeve)

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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