"Isaac Blessing Jacob" by Gerrit Willemsz Horst (Wikimedia)

(Un)Conditional Love

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

Commentary on Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9

This week’s portion, Toldot, contains the difficult story of the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau (Yaakov and Esav), seen by Jewish tradition as emblematic of the difficult relationship between Israel and the nations of the world — specifically Rome and Christianity — and the problematic handling of their rivalry by their parents, Isaac and Rebecca (Yitzhak and Rivkah).

Early on, the Torah takes the poor parents somewhat off the hook, in that it describes the rivalry between the two brothers as something that began in the womb — can’t blame faulty parenting here!

However, once they are born, after we are told of their apparently innate, natural differences (Esau is described as a hairy hunter, a man of the great outdoors, whereas Jacob is a smooth dweller of tents, which probably means he was a shepherd but is also understood to mean he was the contemplative, studious, brainy, indoor type), we are told that “Isaac loved Esau, for he ate of the food which he had hunted, and Rebecca loved Jacob.” What a recipe for disaster!

Again and again, we are told of Isaac’s love for the game that Esau hunted and brought to him. It seems clear that Isaac’s love for Esau stems from, and is perhaps dependent on, this behavior on the part of Esau; he loves him because he respectfully and lovingly feeds him the food which he loves. Rebecca’s love for Jacob, on the other hand, remains unexplained; she just loves him.

Stealing The Blessing

Ultimately, Jacob, egged on by his loving mother, steals his father’s death-bed blessing, which was intended for Esau, by pretending to be Esau, even to the extent of, Esau-like, bringing Isaac some of the food he so loved. When Esau discovers that he has been robbed of his father’s blessing, his hatred for Jacob is complete, and Jacob must skip the country to avoid being killed by him.

It is clear that Isaac’s love for Esau and Rebecca’s love for Jacob are central to the story, and it is these relationships which I would like to examine.

Why do parents love their kids? First of all, they don’t always love them. More and more, we hear about neglectful, abusive parents, parents who clearly do not love their children. A good deal of recent academic thinking on the topic seems to be aimed at undercutting the traditional assumption of the naturalness and universality of parents’ (and especially mothers’) love for the child.

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 Esau, which is presented to us as being triggered by and dependent upon a certain kind of interaction which is profitable for Isaac, and Rebecca’s love for Jacob, which is presented simply as the way Rebecca 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 Esau 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. Esau 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 Rebecca’s love for Jacob. It seems to be a classic, traditional “mother’s love.” In fact, Rebecca 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 Esau, and wonders what will happen if he is found out, Rebecca 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 Rebecca, apparently, has no such unconditional love for her son Esau.

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 Esau. It was a positive perception — he loved and enjoyed him — but it was a very specific perception. Esau 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 Rebecca, 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.

Tragedy Or Salvation?

Might this have been Esau’s tragedy, and Jacob’s salvation? The kind of love that Esau experienced from his father may well have locked him into a certain way of behaving. He was loved for his persona of hunter, the man of action, the man who brings home the venison, and so that is who he must be. Is it not a straight line from this narrow perception of who Esau is and what he can do to Isaac’s death-bed blessing to Esau–“you shall live by your sword,” which locks Esau, forever, into a very specific way of being in the world?

And is it not Rebecca’s unconditional love for Jacob, the love that some contemporary thinkers would have us believe does not really exist, which frees him to be whatever he must be, to be whoever he wants to be, and which even gives him, at his father’s deathbed, the ability, at his mother’s urging, to “be” Esau, and wrest his blessing–the blessing of the first born–away from him, and take it for himself?

All Esau can be is Esau; Rebecca’s unconditional love for Jacob enables him to be anything, and to thereby gain ascendancy over his poor, limited brother. The fact that all Esau ever got was his father’s appreciation of a certain kind of behavior, and was denied the kind of unconditional, unlimited love that his mother gave to Jacob, made him who he was.

The fact that Jacob was loved unconditionally by his mother gives him the strength to be many things, as we see in the climactic moments of this week’s Torah portion, and as we will see in the stories we will read in the weeks to come about the rest of Jacob’s life.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.


Discover More

Kiddushin 31

Squawking at chickens.

Kiddushin 39

When bad things happen to good people.