Valuing Differences

It is important to see the value in Esau as well as Jacob.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Recounting the gestation, birth, and maturation of the Bible's most famous twins, Esau and Jacob, reminds me of a wonderful PBS filmentitled, "How Difficult Can It Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop." F.A.T. stands for Frustration, Anxiety, Tension. Through a series of simulations and exercises, Richard D. Lavoie, a gifted special education teacher, turns a group of highly accomplished adults into learning disabled students in a matter of minutes.

He reminds us that children with learning differences or disabilities experience them not only in school, but 24 hours a day, seven days a week, leading to daily frustration, anxiety, and tension in their everyday lives. During a poignant moment in the film, Lavoie comments that fairness is not treating everyone the same, it's giving everyone what she or he needs.

Different Learning Styles

Jacob and Esau, their struggles, relationship, and vastly different personalities and learning styles stand as archetypes for me of the profound differences our children have in abilities, learning proclivities, and achievements. When it seeks to understand the description of the two twins rough-and-tumbling in her womb, the midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 63:6) comments on Rebekah's prenatal care. Jacob wants to jump out of the womb when Rebekah passes a synagogue or house of study (a rabbinic retrojection of institutional forms). When she passes a house of idolatry (brightly lit, like a mesmerizing casino), Esau can't wait to flee the womb.

As the boys grow and go off to school, yet another Midrash relates how Jacob was like a myrtle and Esau a wild rose, growing side by side. Jacob had a pleasant aroma and Esau thorns. After 13 years of schooling, Jacob continues on to higher Jewish education and Esau pursues a life of depravity where idolatry is a common practice.

Later Jewish tradition lionizes Jacob, the studious, school-capable, avid learner--and demonizes Esau, the outdoors man, the hunter, the man who needed to work with his hands and be on the move. For me as a parent and educator who has dealt with many children, including his own, who come to school with a wide range of learning strengths, needs, deficits, and learning challenges, the juxtaposition of these two archetypal students has powerful resonance. Because Jewish tradition is so scholastic, so verbal, so demanding of linguistic and logical thinking types of intelligence, it often devalues the other gifts that many students bring to their school experience. Our texts communicate the message that to be a good Jew you need only to be a master of words, a skillful manipulator of texts. Esau was anything but that kind of student.

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Steven M. Brown

Steven M. Brown is dean of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and Director of the Melton Center for Jewish Education.