Parshat Toldot: Educate your child according to his or her way

Equality in education turned Esau into a man of the fields, and turned Jacob into an innocent tent-dweller. These two youths grew up to be very different individuals. Equal education, even within the same household, can’t guarantee equal results. Εducate your child according to his or her own way.

by Rabbi Yoni Hollander, Principal
OTS Derech Avot High School 

“And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.” (Genesis 25:27). Parashat Toldot reintroduces an age-old educational dilemma: choosing between equal education and the desire to teach each and every child in his or her own way. This dilemma is expressed in Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s famous and incisive statement about Isaac and Rebecca:

The principle reason for the stark contrast between Abraham’s grandchildren was not just their personality traits, but also their lacking education. When they were young, no one noted the differences in their hidden tendencies. They gave them both the same type of schooling, but in doing so, forgot a central axiom of education: “Educate the child in his own way” (Proverbs 22:6)… If one were to place Jacob and Esau in the same classroom, school them intending to impart the same life habits, and groom them for a life of study and thought, it is assured that one of them will fail.

Had Isaac and Rebecca taken the time to penetrate into Esau’s soul, the future “hero” would not have become a “hero of the hunt”, but rather, a true “hero before Hashem”: “… and the youths grew up”, only after these two youths became men was everyone surprised to discover that these two boys, who had exited the same womb, grown up together, attended school and studied together, nonetheless had such different natures and were so different in the way they acted.

At what age did this discovery occur? Presumably, R. Hirsch’s description is based on a Midrash that states that they were 13 years old (7th or 8th graders in modern terms).

“And they youths grew up”: for all of their 13 years, they had gone and returned from school, and after thirteen years had gone by, one would go to institutions teaching Torah, while the other went to places of idle-worship (Genesis Rabbah, Ch. 63 Sec. 10).

To understand the complexity of this dilemma, we ought to apply it to today’s reality. Let’s imagine that Jacob and Esau had studied together at primary school, where they received the same schooling. Even then, the two differed markedly yet reasonably. “And the youths grew up”: now, they need to choose their secondary education. In today’s terms, Jacob’s school is a direct continuation of the primary school he had attended– a prestigious Yeshiva.

Where, however, was Esau sent? According to Rabbi Hirsch, it wouldn’t have been right to send him to the school Jacob was attending. Where should we send a boy who prefers spending his time in the fields, one who isn’t an innocent tent-dweller? Should we make prayer compulsory in Esau’s school? In the lessons at that school? Would there be any homework? What special programming would we run at that school? Would the students need to take matriculation exams?

A year ago, at a pedagogical conference, one well-respected, long-time educator quoted R. Hirsch, and disagreed with him on how to apply those principles today. He claimed that if we follow R. Hirsch’s advice, we’d be holding back those students, and denying them the equal opportunities they need so badly in our society.  A 12-year-old’s passion for being an outdoors man shouldn’t preclude him from being part of the world of the tent-dwellers. The speaker added that in his opinion, the decision-makers in the educational system erred decades ago when they separated vocational schooling and academic schooling, and in doing so, they sealed the future of these boys, who were still so young.

Yet there’s even more to this complexity. R. Hirsch’s basic assumption was that our children’s education is in our hands, and if we would only give them the proper education they need, we’d succeed at our task. Yet Nachmanides commentary on Joseph reverberates here: “… to inform us that what is decreed is truth, and diligence is a falsity”. In other words, anything a person attempts to do to change a divine decree or to oppose another person’s free will is highly limited.

Much of our children’s future personalities depend on themselves, on their free choice, and on their freely-felt desires. It could very well be that even the best education won’t produce the outcome the educators hope for, since the choices students make are different, “and Hashem shall perform what is goodly in His eyes”.

So, what should we do? Should we send Esau to the school Jacob attends? It’s clearly unwise to make any kind of uni-dimensional decision to resolve such a complex dilemma. We can, however, glean several insights from this discussion:

A. Sometimes, equal education is a recipe for a major educational disaster.

B. A lot depends on giving children the best and most suitable schooling, but not everything depends on this.

C. If a 13-year-old has certain preferences, that doesn’t mean he’ll have those same preferences at all stages of life. It’s important for us to maintain a certain flexibility within our educational systems that will let our youths choose the paths their hearts desire, and raise generations of “heroes before Hashem”, not just heroes of the hunt.

D. The gates of prayer are still open, and we should always bolster our education with prayers, appealing to Hashem to grant us success.

May we merit to raise wise, God-fearing and God-loving children and grandchildren, to become men of truth and seeds of holiness, who cling to Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom 


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