(Un)Conditional Love

Isaac and Rebekah provide us with two models of parenting--love dependent on a specific interaction and love that is unconditional.

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I recently read an article in the London Review of Books whose thesis, predictably enough, was that the concepts of motherhood and mothering were far from being universal, but were in fact (you guessed it) constructs, which were culturally and societally determined. Where love can be shown to exist, we are told that such love is self-serving, the product of a societal arrangement--a 'deal'--wherein I lovingly take care of my kids now, in the hope that they will take care of me in my old age. Some explain parents' love for their children as really the work of selfish genes. All this loving is simply a genetic strategy, a Darwinian attempt to encourage me to take care of my kids, thereby insuring the survival of my little piece of the species.

Different Types Of Love

With this in mind, it is interesting to note the difference between the love of Isaac for Esav, which is presented to us as being triggered by and dependent upon a certain kind of interaction which is profitable for Isaac, and Rebekah's love for Jacob, which is presented simply as the way Rebekah was. Her love for Jacob is just there, a fact, not contingent on any specific behavior on Jacob's part, nor on any interaction with his parents.

We are presented here with two ways of loving. Isaac's love for Esav is very common, and understandable. It is easy to love a competent, helpful, successful son, who does what we want him to do. A son who actively and lovingly cares for his parents. Esav is often presented by the rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud as a model of respect and love for one's parent. His caring for the aged Isaac is seen by the Rabbis as sincere, and heartfelt, and is reciprocated by Isaac's preferential love for him.

We are not given a reason for Rebekah's love for Jacob. It seems to be a classic, traditional 'mother's love." In fact, Rebekah is so true to that model that she is even willing to sacrifice herself for her beloved son. When he expresses doubt as to the wisdom of trying to trick Isaac into blessing him by pretending to be Esav, and wonders what will happen if he is found out, Rebekah reassures him that, if his father discovers the ruse and curses, rather than blesses, him, "your curse will be on me, my son." It is interesting to note that Rebekah, apparently, has no such unconditional love for her son Esav.

I would like to introduce here an idea that I was taught by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld. One of the themes that Sharon really hits hard when she is talking about inter-personal relations (something which, thank God, she does a lot), is the way we are often forced into a mode of behavior by the way others perceive us.

If I am consistently seen as being a certain type, if I am related to, over and over, as a certain kind of person, I will be affected by that perception. I am in danger of being locked into, and even overemphasizing the personality traits which others perceive me as having. I may rebel against this perception, and push myself towards the opposite kind of behavior patterns, but, however I respond to it, I am deeply affected by the way I am perceived, especially by those closest to me.

Isaac, apparently very early on, was locked into a certain way of perceiving Esav. It was a positive perception--he loved and enjoyed him--but it was a very specific perception. Esav is the one who goes out and hunts, the one who skillfully and lovingly brings me the food I need and love. The absence of a report about Isaac's love for his other son, Jacob, may indicate that Isaac was unable to find in Jacob's activities or talents something to latch on to and love. There was nothing Jacob did which got Isaac to love him.

We are told that Rebekah, on the other hand, loved Jacob unconditionally. There is no reason, no specific action, behavior or character trait attached to the emotion. She apparently loved him simply because he was her son, and therefore she found him lovable.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.