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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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Anyone who studies the life of Yitzchak is puzzled, even shocked, by one of the opening lines of this week’s parsha:

(כח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב:

Yitzchak loved Esav because there was meat in his mouth.

It is a line that is almost impossible to understand. How could it be that Yitzchak Avinu had no idea who his son was? And even more, that he loved him dearly, more than Yaakov, because he provided him with food!?

Rashi quotes a midrash: It is true, Yitzchak did indeed have a special affinity for Esav. Why? Ki tzayid b’fiv, because Esav would hunt him, or trick him, with his mouth. The midrash says Esav would ask his father how to separate terumos and maasros from salt, an item that doesn’t need tithing, the point being that Esav was a smooth operator. He was able to trick his elderly and blind father into thinking he was a tzadik when in fact he was not.

The Radak argues that the Torah does not mean to tell us that Yitzchak loved Esav more than Yaakov. Rather, he loved him in addition to Yaakov. And why was that? What positive elements did Yitzchak see in Esav? Esav performed an important and appreciated task of providing food for the family.

Argues the Radak, Yitzchak understood quite well who his son was, but he was able to see the positive qualities he added to the family dynamic even though he was not interested in following in the path of his father.

However, Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, offers an entirely different approach to this question. There is no greater way to influence another person than with love. Some of the wisest educators understand well that it is only once their students can see just how much they truly care for them that the ability to teach expands exponentially.

One weekday evening after Mincha, while waiting to start Maariv, Rav Soloveitchik asked one of the members of the Maimonides Minyan for a special favor. “Moe,” the Rav said, “we have 30 minutes before we are going to daven Maariv. Can you do me a favor and teach me all the rules of baseball? I want to know how the game is played.” Although shocked by this unusual request, Moe gave the Rav a crash course on the minutiae of baseball: three strikes you’re out, four balls and you walk to first, stealing the base, and other basic baseball particulars. At the end of the 30-minute tutorial, Moe mustered enough courage to ask the Rav why he wanted to know how to play baseball. The Rav replied, “My grandchildren are visiting, and I want to be able to talk to them about what interests them.”

Explained Rav Belsky, “Vaye’ehav Yitzchak et Esav ki tzayid b’fiv doesn’t mean that Yitzchak loved Esav because he would give his father something to eat. Rather, the way that Yitzchak showed his love for Esav, the way he developed a loving relationship with his son who had no interest in his mesorah, was ki tzayid b’fiv—he spoke with him about what interested him. He took interest in Esav’s interests. Presumably, Yitzchak wasn’t that excited about the ins and outs of hunting, but he knew that Esav was, so he made it his business to get into it as well. So he tasted whatever Esav had to offer! Tzayid b’fiv!

And this understanding of the relationship between Yitzchak and Esav can offer us an answer to a different enigma within the character of Yitzchak. While his father, Avraham, is known for the attribute of chesed, Yitzchak’s middah is gevurah, strength. How are we to understand this idea that Yitzchak is a man of gevurah, of strength?

If there is one theme about Yitzchak’s life it is that he follows virtually the same exact path as his father. He tells the Plishtim his wife is his sister, just like Avraham. When all of the wells Avraham had dug were stopped up by the Plishtim, Yitzchak re-digs the same wells and he gives them the same names his father did. The midrash even says that Yitzchak looked exactly like Avraham! The Torah is emphasizing for us that Yitzchak was the prototypical rule-follower—the child who follows his parents’ ways to the T. Avraham had paved a new way, and it was Yitzchak’s job to keep the process going and he does it just right.

And now Yitzchak has two children to whom he is excited to pass down his father’s mesorah. One is an ish tam yosheiv ohalim. He is a boy who just wants to sit and study the teachings of his father and grandfather. He spends day and night in the yeshiva. He gets 100 on every test. He doesn’t give his parents trouble, and he follows their rules. But Yitzchak also has another son. And he is different. The yeshiva isn’t for him. He needs to roam free in the field. He doesn’t have a natural interest in the teachings of his father and grandfather. Presumably, it was easy for Yitzchak to relate to Yaakov. That’s who Yitzchak was. The carbon copy of his father, following the same path his father had begun.

The challenge for Yitzchak was to find a way to love Esav too—to tap into the areas he enjoyed and find that connection. And the middah that takes, to overcome our natural tendencies in order to be there for all our children, is of course gevurah. As the Mishna teaches in Pirkei Avot: Eizehu gibor hakovesh et yitzro: Who is truly strong? Those who are able to overcome our natural instincts, to be there for those who matter to us most.

On September 20, 1995, the Boston Red Sox were one win away from clinching the American League East Championship. In the scheme of things, it was not a big deal, but for an 11-year-old Bostonian who had no idea what was coming in the 2000s, this was the most exciting sports moment of my life. So after school I decided to page my father at work. My father is, and was, a doctor. He would work most days until 6 or 7 p.m., come home to have dinner with us, and then go upstairs to his home office where he would return phone calls to patients and finish up other work well into the night. He was always available to me, but he was definitely busy.

My father returned my page, and I said, “Dad, if the Sox win tonight they clinch the AL East. Can we go to the game?!” Without hesitation he said, “Yeah, Beni, let’s do it!” I must have shot through the ceiling. I was so excited. He picked me up, we went down to Fenway, and the Red Sox won. I can still remember exactly where we sat. My father bought me a pennant, and I stapled the ticket from that night onto it and posted it on my wall, along with the front page of the paper from the next day. I knew it was a great experience, but what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my father had a few hours of work to do that night. And he put it all aside to take me to a baseball game.

Did that experience with my father make me want to be frum? I don’t think so. Would it have been a disaster if he said no? Not at all. But I do know that his sacrifice, his willingness to put everything else aside for something that mattered to me brought us closer than ever before.

We all have the opportunity every day to be a gibor, to put down even very important things in our life for the most important people in our life. To find that inner strength to find love within our hearts for all of our children and our students—even the ones who are harder to love. That, I believe, is the legacy of Yitzchak Avinu. Showing love through inner strength. Because all of our children have an interest, a tzayid b’fiv, an opening to connect with them. It’s our job to find it.


Rabbi Beni Krohn is the rabbi at The Young Israel of Teaneck.

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