Of all the things a child receives at birth, the purity of a newborn soul is without question the most important. When we stare at a little human being we ponder the possibilities, the endless potential that creates a flurry of visions in a parent's mind. However a baby's character soon emerges. The parents of a bar or bat mitzvah will often recall that ever since birth their child has been strong-willed or easygoing, outspoken or impressionable, gentle or strong, vulnerable or powerful. Far be it from me to address the nature/nurture debate in these few lines but the parasha surely gives us pause to think about it.
In Toldot, we see history repeated when Rebecca, like her mother in-law, Sarah, before her, is faced with apparent infertility. But Isaac's wife does conceive, and Rebecca shall give birth to battling twins whose rivalry begins in the womb. "Two nations," Rebecca is told by Adonai "are to issue forth from you," (Gen. 25:23), and, more than this, "the older shall serve the younger." Rebecca survived a tortuous pregnancy. According to the midrash, if she walked in the vicinity of a place of idol worship, Esau pushed and squirmed in her womb. If she passed a Beit Midrash, House of Study, Jacob lunged to break forth from his mother's body. Twin sons vying for power even as they swam in the peaceful waters of gestational being. Infants born with divine prediction of their fate.
Were they deprived of their potential? Could it have been possible to shape their characters, in the words of the rabbis, to become two children who yearned to make their way to the House of Study? Though a child is born but once, our souls are reborn every day. Do we so easily relinquish to fate the character of our children, our students, ourselves? Is it not our role as adults, parents and teachers, to be tenacious in our resolve to teach Torah and soothing words of tefilah, "prayer," to the wild and unruly, the untamed and unstudied children, enabling them to become lovers of Adonai and mitzvot?
Esau's name, we learn in Toldot, means "hairy," derived, perhaps, from a Semitic root meaning "thick-haired." A midrash teaches that this name was appropriate because Esau was asui, fully created or developed at birth. Esau could also remind us of those who are thick-willed. Esau, not a soul completely created - asui, but Esau, one who is asiyah, a soul that is always in the process of being created.
Ask around. How many great cantors, rabbis, Jewish educators, and synagogue presidents rebelled against Jewish learning or spent time in religious school hallways? What a gift to the Jewish community are those parents and teachers, those leaders who never gave up but struggle tenaciously to lead all students to the life renewing wellspring of Torah.
For further reading: Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics (Crown, 1996).
Rabbi Elka Abrahamson is president of the Wexner Foundation.