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Elusive love of the “undeserving”

Rabbi Zalman Kastel
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Isaac and Rebecca with Jacob and Esau – Jan Victors

Isaac and Rebecca with Jacob and Esau – Jan Victors

Published: 14 November 2015

Last updated: 4 March 2024

This post is less about answers than questions. The fraught quest for attachment to parents and for parental love has scarred many people. I emphatically believe in unconditional parental love which is why I am so puzzled by the way the Torah reading this week [Toldot] seems to contradict this principle. A related, but broader, question is whether love must be earned or should love be our first and fundamental disposition towards all people? A very irate man called me this week to complain about what he described as my loving behavior toward Muslims; he seemed to regard love as something that Muslims, in general, do not deserve.

In the Torah reading we are told that the mother, Rebecca, loved Jacob [1] but the text tells us nothing about how she felt about Jacob’s twin, Esau, at this point. Disturbingly, commentary suggests that her love for one son rather than the other was based on them having to earn her love. Commentary suggests that every time Rebecca heard Jacob’s voice her love for him would increase” [2], “when she would hear his (Jacobs) pleasant words and would see his wholesome ways”. [3] However Rebecca is thought to not love her other son Esau [4] because “not only did he not occupy himself with wisdom and the ways of God, but he chose an occupation for himself that put him in danger every day…”[5] Her love is clearly conditional which I find really hard to accept.

In contrast to Rebecca’s lack of love for the “evil” Esau we are told that “Isaac loved Esau because of the [hunted] game in his mouth”. [6] Far from this being seen as endorsement of unconditional love, by the practice of one of our patriarchs no less, this father’s love for his “bad child” seems a fault according to some of our traditional teachings.

A simple understanding of the text would have us believe that Esau’s hunting of “game from which he [Isaac] would eat”[7] was the reason Isaac loved this particular son. Isaac is portrayed in one tradition as quite particular in his tastes, indulgent and loving all kinds of delicacies, perhaps even spoiled, being the younger child born to his parents in their old age. Isaac consumed meat of the hunted animals and birds as well as choice wine brought to him by Esau.[8] One Midrash links Isaac’s love to the evils of bribery and the proverb “A bribe is a precious stone in the eyes of the one who has it; wherever he turns, he prospers”[9], asserting that bribery is like a stone, wherever it falls it breaks things.[10]

Yet, other teachings reflect a reluctance to portray our patriarch Isaac so harshly, instead either blaming Esau for misleading Isaac about his [Esau’s] true nature [11] or believing that it was Isaac’s prophecy about a righteous descendent of Esau, named Ovadia, that was the reason for his love [12] rather than loving this boy Esau for himself.

While the text tells us nothing about Isaac’s love for his “good son”, Jacob, commentary is not comfortable with leaving this as is, instead asserting that surely the deserving son enjoyed his father’s love and explaining away the fact that this is not stated in the text.[13]

As the story unfolds, Esau is eventually so resentful of his brother Jacob that he plans to kill him. Chillingly, Esau’s weak attachment to his mother can be seen in the fact that although Esau is reluctant to kill his brother while his father is alive (instead waiting for the end of the mourning period after his father’s death) [14] he thinks nothing of his mother’s grief.[15]

There is a cryptic phrase toward the end of the story that refers to Rebecca as the mother of both Jacob and Esau [16] when she sends Jacob away to her brother’s house to save him from Esau’s murderous plan. This reference is explained as her being concerned for the safety of both her sons, perhaps because, in a confrontation between the twins, Jacob might harm her other son Esau [17] whom she still cares about. Her brother would protect them both from each other. This suggests that after all Rebecca did love Esau despite her disapproval of him, despite the contrary impression from the texts mentioned above about love needing to be earned.

This discussion is about Midrash rather than Jewish Law which usually stipulates one right or wrong way to do things. When it comes to these moral discussions, there are 70 “faces to the Torah”, which means that a religious Jew is not strictly bound by any particular interpretations of this story. I look forward to learning more about this. I shall continue to advocate unconditional parental love and a presumption of love for all as primary virtues. There are, however, exceptions for me. Jews, unlike Christians, are not called to love their enemies. I don’t love despots, tyrants, abusers of trust or my closed-minded caller who showed no interest in understanding what I do, or why, and who went so far as to say that I have no right to call myself a Rabbi. But unless there is very good reason to the contrary, I believe I must approach each and every person with goodwill and an open heart. As we are taught, the Torah’s ways are pleasant and all it’s paths are of peace. [18]

1. Genesis 25:28
2. Bereshit Rabba 63a, commentary cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, note 181, highlights the particular word for love in the text is אוהבת‬in the present tense rather than אהבה‬ in the past tense‬‬‬‬‬‬
3. Sachar Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, note 181, Jacob’s wholesomeness is also cited in Rashbam, while Yalkut Ohr Afela, (cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, 182) suggests that the love was the result of Rebecca’s prophecy that Jacob would be righteous
4. Seforno
5. Radak
6. Genesis 25:28
7. Unkelos translation of Genesis 25:28
8. Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1029, note 177
9. Proverbs 17:8
10. Midrash Tanchuma, Toldos 8
11. Midrash Tanchuma, Toldos 8, also cited in Rashi
12. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, 180
13. Radak asserts that there is no need to tell us that Isaac loved (the righteous?) Jacob, because he loved Jacob more than he Esau, in fact he did not love Esau (simply as a son) except for the fact that he would bring him hunted game to eat. Seforno also asserts that Isaac’s love for Esau was in addition to his love for Jacob, but that although Isaac would have known, without a doubt, that Esau was not “complete” like Jacob he loved him anyway
14. Genesis 27:41
15. Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 25:28
16. Genesis 28:5
17. Rabbenu Bchai
18. Proverbs 3:17

This +61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This article first appeared on www.thejewishindependent.com.au and is reprinted with permission."

About the author

Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Zalman Kastel is Director of Together for Humanity Foundation, a Christian, Jewish Muslim organisation that promotes Intercultural Understanding, primarily in schools.


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