One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture – whether we inherit ancestral personality traits; or whether learning environment and experience shape our identity.

As with almost all such questions, the answer is not binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

When the Torah begins the next chapter of our ancestral history, it tells us exactly where we came from:

וַיְהִי יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת-רִבְקָה בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם–אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי, לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה – Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka, daughter of Besuel, the Aramean of Padan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. (25:20)

At this point, the Torah has only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka, and Eliezer has only just brought her back to Avraham; so why does the Torah specify in such painstaking detail who her family members are?

Rashi notes this peculiarity and suggests that the Torah is contrasting her kind heart with the environment of her upbringing as praise that she resisted their influence.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that as much as the famous adage in Avos cautions us about the powerful influence of neighbors and environment on our personalities; in Rivka, we see the power of an individual to transcend their origins.

It’s a key theme of this story – we can contrast Rivka, growing up in a negative environment yet retaining her kind spirit; to Esau, growing up in the in the most righteous and moral home in the world – guided by no less than Rivka herself! Instead of becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, he loses his way entirely.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that where we come from does not have to define where we are going; we always have the choice.

We must not simplistically shirk our duties by blaming peer pressure and environments for our choices; as influential as defaults settings are, we can still choose to be different all the same.

The surest way to forfeit free will is to believe you have no choice.

One of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life is deception – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically buys the birthright from Esau and tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessings. This sets a course of events in emotion, wherein Yakov must flee to Lavan, who deceives Yakov by substituting Leah in place of Rachel, causing lifelong tension between their children; culminating in the brothers kidnapping and cover-up of Yosef; the effects of which Yakov describes at the end of his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – And Jacob said unto Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings.’ (47:9)

It is simplistic to hand wave and whitewash away Yakov’s responsibility for the events of his life. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches us to acknowledge the flaws our heroes proudly, so what we can learn that perfection is elusive, but excellence is not.

It’s easy to say Yakov did nothing wrong, but the Torah suggests that he might have:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

The Zohar remarks that Esau’s tears caused thousands of years of suffering, and R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly. The inescapable conclusion is that Yakov should not have gone through with his mother’s scheme.

At the very least, there is moral ambiguity in Yakov’s actions, if not outright error.

As Yitzchak neared his deathbed, Rivka knew that her husband could not see what Esau truly was, so instructed Yakov to misappropriate Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וישתחו (וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ) לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and of the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesseth you. (27:28,29)

R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and land. Yishmael received a blessing for power and wealth, and Esau could too.

In the aftermath of Yakov and Rivka’s deception, Yakov flees, and his father blesses him, transparent with who he is speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse orchestrated by Rivka and carried out by Yakov was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterizes Yakov life began with an honest misunderstanding of God’s blessing.

God’s blessing is abundant; not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have Gods’ blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when they meet again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau was a return and submission to Esau’s power; acknowledging the great wrongdoing of his youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and taking his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Only once Yakov fights off the specter of trying to be like Esau does he earn the name and title of Yisrael.

Perhaps the lesson is straightforward. We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

One of the Torah’s features is that it calls out its heroes when they make mistakes, as all humans do. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is a key element of the Torah’s credibility as a teaching instrument.

The story of Yakov and Esau is a fascinating case study of family dynamics:

וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים – The boys grew up; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (25:27)

Despite their sons’ different natures and latent abilities, Yitzchak and Rivka nurtured and raised the boys together – וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים – yet seemed surprised that they turned out differently – וַיְהִי.

Rashi criticizes this blanket parenting technique, citing the proverb in Mishlei advising parents to educate each child in his way; so that when he matures, he will not veer from it –  חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַלפִּי דַרְכּוֹגַּם כִּייַזְקִין, לֹאיָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the proverb advises parents to raise a child in “his” way, not “your” way – דַרְכּוֹ – and that the result will be not that he won’t veer from the way you taught him, but that he won’t veer from his own way – מִמֶּנָּה.

The Malbim remarks that different people need different things; and all people are different, regardless of the magnitude of difference.

R’ Hirsch notes that only at the end of his life could Yaakov recognize the diversity of his twelve sons, and blessed each of them with a personalized yet cohesive future – the scholars of Levi; the warrior-kings of Yehuda; the traders of Zevulun; cooperating as one united nation.

It was and is a mistake to raise Yakov and Eisav in the same way. Esav was one man to his father, and another to the world; but he could never be his authentic self to his father.  Every moment Yitzchak spent lecturing Esau was a moment Esau couldn’t be himself – the man of the world – אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.

It is a truism that parents need to be on the same page, and it should be equally obvious that it is the unruly children that need the extra love, acceptance, and embrace.

Yitzchak and Rivka were not on the same page about how to raise Esau, which may be why she orchestrated the ruse for the blessings, to show how easily Yitzchak could be fooled.

It is entirely possible that the miscommunication and parenting mistakes between the parents generated the environment of competition and strife between their children, preventing them from being themselves, resulting in the jealousy and rivalry that defined the relationship between Esau and Yakov for most of their lives.

If your child grows up and goes down a path that you don’t approve of, trying to impose change will only cause alienation. Parents and teachers must always remember that as much as the Torah wants us all to be good people, the recipe, ingredients, and quantities are different for each of us.

We should not teach our children to be just like us. If we teach people to find themselves; they will never be lost.

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was often in pain from the unborn children fighting. One particular time, she lamented:

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה – The children struggled within her, and she said, “This is what it is? Why is this happening to me?” And she went to inquire of the Lord.
(25:22)

What was so difficult for her to understand, that she had to seek out answers?

But we must remember that at this point in the story, Rivka did yet know she was having twins!

Of course, we have the benefit of knowing how the story would unfold. Chazal understand that each time she walked past a holy site, one child would agitate, and each time she walked past pagan idols, the other would stir.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a fascinating resolution. When Moshe reviews the Torah in his final speech to the people, he tells them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil. (11:26)

The simple meaning is that there is always a good and a bad choice, and we must choose wisely.

But there is a different implication from a closer reading. It is not just a choice of action, but a choice of identity – אָנֹכִי means the first person, the self, “I.”

What kind of אָנֹכִי do we each wish to be?

Tying this to Rivka’s problem, we can frame Rivka’s problem and resolution in a different light:

לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – Where is the אָנֹכִי in this child? Does he want to go to holy places, or serve idols? This child is confused! And the prophet replied to her:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – It is not one confused child, there are two children with two separate identities.

With this, she was comforted.

With our every each choice and action, we get to choose to align closer with one identity or the other.

When Yakov disguised himself to receive his Yitzchak’s blessing, he had to quell Yitzchak’s suspicions:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל אָבִיו אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ עָשִׂיתִי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי קוּם נָא שְׁבָה וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֲכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ – Yakov said to his father, “I am, Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you said to me. Please rise, sit down and eat, so that you can bless me.” (27:19)

Isn’t this an outright lie?

When this story is taught to youngsters, they learn that he did not claim to be Esau. Yakov paused after he said “I am”, and then simply affirmed that Esau was his firstborn son.

But when he said “I have done as you said to me,” what other way is there to understand the deception?

Rashi states that although it seems like he lied, Yakov was still being true to Yitzchak’s ways. The Od Yosef Chai notes that Avraham taught Yitzchak, and Yitzchak taught Yakov. Yakov could truthfully state he had done as Yitzchak had said. Undoubtedly, one of the instructions was to honour his parents, and in fact, the whole scheme was his mother’s idea! He listened to his mother because his father had taught him to.

It’s a fine line. But sometimes it’s more important to stay true to what something means than to keep to what it literally says.

When it was clear that they would be unable to have children, Yitzchak and Rivka prayed:

‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִו וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה –  Yitzchak begged the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and He conceded”. (21:25)

We classically understand that God wants our prayers, yet the Torah says that God “conceded”. Why was the prayer unwelcome?

R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explains that out of respect for Avraham’s honour, he would  live long enough to see his eldest son Yishmael repent (25:9), but die before his grandson Esau became a murderer (25:30). But the earlier Esau was born, the sooner Avraham would die! The “concession” of וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה  tracks precisely this tension. There was never any doubt that Isaac would have children; his father had been promised “nations”, through Isaac. Rivka would certainly be their mother as she was the one deemed worthy, as evidenced by the miracles Eliezer witnessed. It was just a matter of time then. Literally.

There was never any doubt that Yitzchak would have children; his father had been promised “nations” through him. Rivka would be their mother as evidenced by the miracles Eliezer witnessed. It was just a matter of time.

It just wasn’t the right time in their lives. But they begged, and Hashem conceded.

Each day we pray that רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם – He fulfils the desires of those who fear Him; He hears their cry, and saves them. These are not separate and are not out of order. Hashem fulfils desires to placate cries, but sometimes it’s our desires that make us cry. we don’t know what’s best for us. It’s about saving us from ourselves.

We don’t know always what’s best for us. We may want for the wrong thing. Part of the gift of prayer is that it can save us from ourselves.