The Good Parent


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:21 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 25:19-28:9
Haftorah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
Havdalah: 5:21 p.m.

The aged, nearly blind Isaac has just been deceived by his son Jacob and wife Rebecca. Jacob, impersonating his twin Esau, stole the blessing Isaac intended for Esau. Isaac reacts immediately to the deception, affirming that Jacob will remain blessed. This is the beginning of a remarkable teaching that Isaac will transmit to Jacob.

Isaac seems to be the parent who is like a reed, not like a cedar [Taanit 20a]. He goes with the flow, as he did when his father Abraham bound him to the altar. However, he inherited a deep integrity from Abraham and Sarah, which he will teach to his own son. The Rebbe of Koznitz instructed that if one keeps his word, “God will do as he says. His blessings will be fulfilled and his words are like edicts to be implemented.”

Isaac seems to accept the situation while, in fact, greatly affecting future events. He permits Jacob to do as he wishes. In this way, Isaac is like God, the Divine parent who permits us to go the way we choose, as Resh Lakish says in the Talmud, “If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped” [Shabbat 104a]. Now that Isaac’s subconscious intuition about which son he was blessing became consciously known, Isaac had a decision to make. Instead of lashing out in anger or disgust at Jacob, Isaac seems to forgive Jacob, perhaps thinking similarly to what Rabbi Samuel Karff said, “It is better to care too much than too little.” Isaac engages in the kind of thoughtful waiting the Baal Shem Tov was known for: patiently riding out events until an opportunity for understanding and action comes along.

Almost immediately after the theft of the blessing, God presents Isaac with just the right opportunity to teach Jacob about truth. Rebecca urges Isaac to send Jacob to Laban, her brother, Laban, to find a wife. Isaac is willing, showing the quality of Chochmah — wisdom — by blessing Jacob but not sending giving him the customary servants, camels, gifts, or bride-price that Abraham sent along with Eliezer when seeking a wife for Isaac from the same family. Jacob arrives empty-handed.

The Torah comments: “And Isaac sent off Jacob and he went toward Padan-Aram to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau” [Genesis 28:5]. The end of this passage seems to be superfluous since we already know that Rebecca is the mother of Jacob and Esau, and that Laban is her brother. Rashi says of the repetition, “I do not know what it teaches us.” Ramban suggests that it mentions Esau and Laban because it would have been proper for Isaac to have also commanded Esau to go to Laban for a wife [Ramban on Gen. 28:5]; however, Esau already had two wives. Perhaps the Torah is providing a window into Isaac’s thinking, as if to say, ‘I’ll send Jacob to the family where this lying came from. Let Laban and his family teach Jacob about deceit so that he will be cured by understanding what it is to live in a family where there are untruthful words and deceiving acts.’”

Isaac knows that Jacob is perfectible. In the book, “A Good Enough Parent,” Bruno Bettelheim notes that the words “discipline” and “disciple” come from the Latin root meaning “a learner.”  He quotes the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines discipline as “a branch of knowledge or learning and also as training that develops self-control [and] character, or orderliness and efficiency,” among other meanings. Isaac exemplifies teaching discipline by example, as he arranging the circumstances of Jacob’s life, forcing Jacob to grow and change. This is the way God teaches us. God permits us to go the way we choose and insists that we take responsibility for the consequences. God knows that we are perfectible and arranges the circumstances in our lives so that we can make good choices, growing and learning all the time.

We can follow Isaac’s example, forgiving each other and even being like God for each other: giving each other the benefit of the doubt, being patient, and teaching through setting good examples. We can appreciate not only the way Isaac taught Jacob about integrity, but also the way God teaches us, helping us to learn to choose truth over expediency, integrity over lying, and generosity over selfishness, so that our words can be trusted and, as the Rebbe of Koznitz said, “all our blessings will be fulfilled.”

Rabbi Jill Hausman is rabbi and cantor of The Actors’ Temple.