It was the sixth session of the class, but like most teachers, I knew very little about the personal backgrounds of my students, Richard, Simon, and Leon. I was beginning to know each of them as students of Genesis and as open-minded young Jews, ready to learn all they could. But I had no clue as to their family backgrounds and as to whether or not they were married or had families of their own.
It was this session during which we studied this week's Torah portion, Parshat Toldot, that changed all of that. All three students found themes in the reading assignment for the week, Genesis 25:19-28:9, that related to their own family experiences which evoked powerful emotional experiences in them.
Richard began, shaking his head in disbelief: "I was astounded. The story of Jacob and Esau is the story of my two kids. One is an angel, behaves perfectly at home and school, and surprises us daily with his studiousness and cooperation around the house. The other is a terror, always getting into trouble, and totally disobedient to me and to his mom. My kids are not twins, but otherwise it is the same story."
Leon was quick to identify with Richard's connection of his personal family to the biblical characters: "For my little boy, so far my only child, it's too soon to tell whether he is a Jacob or an Esau. And I was an only child. But I think I had a little bit of Jacob and a little bit of Esau in me. And I think I still do."
Simon had a different perspective: "I am a parent of four kids. None of them is perfect as Jacob is described, but, thank God, none of them is an Esau either. But I found myself identifying with the parents, with Isaac and Rebecca. I couldn't sleep at night after I read the assignment, because I kept asking myself if I, like Isaac, was blind to my children's real character. I told my wife about it, and she, of course, saw things Rebecca's way and insisted that she was the one who really knew the true nature of our children."
The discussion could have continued in this direction for the entire class hour. But I wanted to prevent a session of family therapy and return to the class's objective, learning about some basic concepts of Judaism. So I spoke up and said, "I appreciate learning about you and certainly value the way in which you relate the Torah reading to your personal lives. But what basic Jewish concepts did you find in these ancient stories of parents and children?"
There was immediate resistance to my intervention. All three wished to continue the discussion under way. And, in a sense, they did.
Simon began: "A basic concept for me is in the beginning of the story, when Rebecca experiences the pain of carrying twins and 'goes to seek God'. That teaches me that if you have a problem, you somehow turn it over to God. I just don't know how."
"Thanks, Simon. You gave me an opening. The commentators have different approaches here. Some say that Rebecca sought God's wisdom by approaching a seer or wise man. But Ramban says that she sought God through prayer. Both approaches are available to us."
Simon appreciated my answer, with one caveat. "Yes," he said with a smile. "But He doesn't answer me as quickly as He answered her."
Richard cut short what could have been a lesson in how God answers prayers by proclaiming that he had discovered another basic concept in the text: "Isaac was blind to Esau's true character. We are all blind to what is really going on in the hearts and minds of others. Only God sees the true nature of man."
"Yes," I replied. "The Bible itself teaches this very emphatically. Not only Isaac, but the prophet Samuel too, could not 'psyche out' the candidates for king of Israel. And in response to his inability we are told, 'ha'adam yireh la'enayim, vaHashem roeh lalevav, man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.' " (I Samuel 16:7)
Leon, ever the gadfly, reframed the discussion: "OK, Rabbi, we each have found a basic Jewish concept in Toldot. But I'm not going to tell you mine. I want to hear what you think is a basic Jewish concept about family, whether or not it is in this parsha."
"Thanks, Leon," I responded. "I can count on you to make sure I earn my paycheck. I'll reply with a teaching from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, to whose writings I have already introduced you. But this quote is not from his commentary on the Torah but from one of his essays."
Here are the words of Rav Hirsch: "If there is one lesson that Judaism teaches about the family, it is this: there is no substitute for the mother and the father in producing a fully Jewish child and in insuring Jewish continuity. The best of schools cannot achieve what even the average parent can achieve when it comes to Jewish education."
I concluded: "In terms of Parshat Toldot, what we learn is that parents may be blind or guilty of playing favorites. Parents, even Isaac and Rebecca, are human and capable of error. But they must try as well as they can to be good parents, as did Isaac and Rebecca, and know that there are no guarantees that their children will turn out as they would like."
And so ended our sixth class session. I never did learn Leon's basic concept for Parshat Toldot.