The stories of our earliest ancestors that we read in Breisheet (Genesis) are filled with parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. This week, we read the stories of Jacob and Esau, whose troubling relationship and failure to understand one another echo that of the first siblings, Cain and Abel. One aspect of Jewish tradition that I deeply appreciate is a stark unwillingness to whitewash human nature. Our stories are filled with imperfect heroes, allowing us to hold the Torah up and see ourselves reflected in it.
In recent educational trends, the idea of Growth Mindset has been gaining ground and popularity. Simply put, it is the idea that with effort and resilience, you can learn almost anything, and that you can learn most from failure. That message is one that our children don’t always receive from their parents or their schools. More often, we praise our children for their innate gifts, leading to a fixed mindset in which the core belief is that we are good at some things, bad at others, and that’s it. One reason I appreciate the flawed protagonists in our holy texts is that they are clear examples that growth is not only possible, but a core feature of humanity’s relationship with the divine. In some sense, it is our job to grow, and to reject the idea of a fixed set of abilities as the sum total of our selves.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, the eventual resolution of their early rift is quite touching, as it describes the full range of emotions Jacob experiences as he re-connects with the brother he’d stolen from so long ago, moving from apprehension to a restoration of connectedness. As each man grows older, they begin to add complexity – no longer just “a man of the sword,” Esau shows great compassion towards Jacob. These stories contain kernels of truly important lessons about the course of human relationships, which are often fraught with discord and conflict, but those can in fact lead to even greater sources of connection further down the line.
This Shabbat, tell your children your own stories of familial conflict or stress, so that they can begin to understand how normal it is for relationships to be dynamic rather than static.