Shabbat Message: Toldot

Thursday, November 4, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֔ב וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ פַּדֶּ֣נָֽה אֲרָ֑ם אֶל־לָבָ֤ן בֶּן־בְּתוּאֵל֙ הָֽאֲרַמִּ֔י אֲחִ֣י רִבְקָ֔ה אֵ֥ם יַעֲקֹ֖ב וְעֵשָֽׂו׃

Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.(Gen. 28:5).

This verse has puzzled many commentators on the Torah. It is well known that Rebekah is the mother of Jacob and Esau, leading the famed Torah commentator Rashi to declare: “ I do not know what the addition of these words is intended to tell us.”

Perhaps the Torah us teaching us that despite the very unfortunate circumstances surrounding Jacob’s departure (Esau has threatened to kill him for stealing the birthright) and the possibility that Rebekah favored Isaac, she was still the mother of both children. She still loved both of them. Her loved for Esau was not diluted even as she may have been disappointed in him.

Parenting is challenging and it is made more difficult when children make decisions that upset their parents. Perhaps the Torah is offering a view into how Rebekah looks back at her involvement in this unfortunate situation and hinting at a bit of remorse. “Even after all that Esau has done and after all that I have done, I am still his mother.” Rebekah’s approach was prescribed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in a letter (Vol I #138) he wrote to Rabbi Dov Ber Milstein in 1908, who was living in Warsaw at the time. Rabbi Milstein was a pious Jew whose two sons withdrew from religious life. Rabbi Milstein was distraught and he wrote to Rav Kook asking for advice. Rabbi Milstein’s father had suggested that he cut all ties with his two non-religious sons.

Rav Kook had a different approach and offered some practical advice. First he notes that Rabbi Milstein must not reject his sons.

“Yes, my friend, I understand well your sorrowing heart. But if you should think as many of our Torah scholars do, that it is in order at this time to reject those children who have strayed from the ways of Torah and religious faith...I say unhesitatingly, that this is not the way God wants.”

In a remarkable statement of understanding Rav Kook insists that the father must appreciate that his children’s decision to leave religious life was motivated by noble causes. “When all of the iniquity that prevails in the social order, according to their perspective, was portrayed before them, they became warriors for the improvement of society.”

What a sensitive understanding. Rav Kook is entertaining the possibility that Rabbi Milstein sons left observance because they felt that Judaism was not addressing the pressing social needs of the time. Rav Kook does not get defensive, rather he urges Rabbi Milstein to appreciate their motivations.

Rav Kook even goes on to advise Rabbi Milstein to financially support his two sons. He notes that staying connected in this way provides the father an opportunity to share his views with them. He writes: “This will give you the opportunity to express in your letters some admonition with good sense. It is in the nature of words that come from the heart to have an effect, whether much or little. Even the little is very important.”

While Rav Kook is confident that the two men will find their way back to traditional Judaism, he does not his advice to Rabbi Milstein on any expectations.

Finally, Rav Kook suggests to Rabbi Milstein that he remind his sons “not to give up their love for their people, from which they derive...” Perhaps Rav Kook felt that a national connection to the Jewish people could help them retain some relationship with Judaism.

At one point in the letter Rav Kook references a statement found in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a)

“Rabbi Abba bar Zavda says: From here it may be inferred that even when the Jewish people have sinned, they are still called “Israel.” Rabbi Abba says: This is in accordance with the adage that people say: Even when a myrtle is found among thorns, its name is myrtle and people call it myrtle.”

Summing up his approach, Rav Kook writes: “...we must not despair of any of our holy children...”

Contending with children who disappoint their parents is a complicated and fraught matter. The Torah’s statement that Rebekah was the mother of Jacob and Esau remind us that parental love for children can prevail. Rav Kook teaches us how to achieve that possibility.

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

Category: ERJCC Blog