by Tzuri Hason, adapted from the original Hebrew article on Jeducation World.

As both an educator and a parent, I often find myself delving into the question of how to treat more “challenging” children, those children who do not necessarily follow the plans and values we hoped to engender within them. Rather, these children may have habits and behaviors that we’d like to see refined, or, in the more severe cases, completely changed. How should we, as their educator, behave in such situations?

Should we show them unconditional love, letting them know that we will never run from them? Should we withdraw from them, ignoring these issues in order to save ourselves from the frustration and conserve our mental resources? Should we try combining both approaches, with both love and rebuke? It seems that the Torah wishes for us to take this approach, as it is said, “for the Lord chastens the one He loves, as a father placates a son.” (Proverbs 3:12) Unfortunately, this approach may be the most difficult to implement.

We were, in fact, also exposed to this exact issue in a recent parsha reading. Esau, the son of Rebecca and Isaac, is a hunter, a passionate and materialistic man who marries a Canaanite woman against the will of his parents. This is, at least, according to the pshat, simplistic, reading of the Torah. The midrashim actually go on to paint Esau further, showing him as a robber, rapist and murderer. Clearly, it can be said that he did not follow in the footsteps of his father, a man walked on a straight path of God and was willing to sacrifice himself on an altar. Nor can we positively compare him to the graceful image of his mother who had a close prophetic relationship with God.

The Torah is sure to paint for us the difference between the brothers Jacob and Esau, and their relationship to their parents: “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. And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28) It is, however, also clear from the continuation of the story that Isaac also loved Jacob, who followed in his footsteps. (Sidenote: I believe it is fair to say that Rebecca also loved Esau equally, but that she chose to invest her energy on the child that showed he would follow their path.) Yet, it was important for Isaac to love Esau, and for that love to be emphasized. It is likely that Isaac believed that by loving his son he may be brought back to doing good. Even when his son married a Canaanite, an event that the Torah teaches brought great pain, he did not rebuke him.

The Sforno, one of the major commentators of the Torah, seems to interpret this as a huge mistake, in that Isaac’s influence over Esau was great enough that he would have accepted a rebuke, stating “and thus he declared that Issac could have protested Esu when he married  women from Canaan, if he would put his heart to it.” (Commentary on Genesis 28:8) At first, I believed that the Sforno was being quite critical of Isaac and his choice, but, at second glance, I came to understand that he in fact appreciated his method, and is in fact saying, “Isaac, you were such a good man that you even managed to create such a special relationship with a great evil, you found within him potential when others had already given up on the search. Yet, why did you not use everything you could to tilt him in another direction?” He is asking: why would Isaac not do everything in his ability to rebuke his son, when he was the only one who could do it?

The Torah, unlike the narratives and folk tales of other cultures and religions, does not give us perfect figures. Rather, it tells us about powerful yet human figures. It shows us exemplary characters, who were so close to “perfection”, yet had shortcomings that we could apply to our own lives. And, I believe that the lesson we can learn from this story, is that we must not give up on any child. We must love them, keep them close, but also, very gently, know how to mark boundaries and rebuke them when necessary.