Sunday, November 4, 2007

Toldos, Breishis 27:1. Vatich’hena Einov: The Indelible Influence of Exposure to Rish’us.

Yitzchok’s sense of sight deteriorated in his old age. Rashi— because of the smoke from the ketores the wives of Eisav burned for Avoda Zarah. Apparently, the tension and conflict between the holiness of Yitzchak’s eyes and the tumah of the avodah zarah had a deleterious effect on his vision.

The Da’as Zkainim here points out that Rivka’s eyes were not affected because she grew up in the house of Besueil, where she got used to korbanos to Avoda Zarah.

You have to realize that Rivkah left home at the age of three, or, some say, at ten or fourteen. Eisav wasn’t born until around 20 years later, and Eisav didn’t marry till he was 40 (Breishis 26:34). So Rivka was at least 64 years old when the wives of Eisav started to bring korbanos to Avoda Zarah. She had only been with Besueil and Lavan till she was three, and now she was 64, and her eyes weren’t affected by the ketores of Avoda Zara because she was used to it from her youth. Her youth?? Three or four years of exposure as a child that ended sixty years before??  We see the tremendous and indelible effect of growing up in the house of a rasha and being exposed to his rishus. Rivkah was a tzadeikis gemurah, and had been since birth, and had been by Yitzchak for over 60 years, but still, exposure to avodah Zarah didn’t sicken her her as it did Yitzchak. Once a person experiences something bad or wicked, it becomes normal, or a possibility. If one never experienced it, and sees it for the first time later, it makes him sick. Like television— if you watched TV as a child, even if you abhor and avoid it later, watching television will be unpleasant but will not make you chalesh, you won’t have an reflexive physical revulsion. The lewdness and vulgarity might make you cringe, but it won’t nauseate you. And not only does early life experience have an effect, but even prenatal experience does. Eishes Mano’ach was told to avoid whatever was assur to the child she was pregnant with, because it would have affected his kedusha. A parent is held responsible for how well he raises his child, and there are mistakes in raising children that cannot be remedied, certainly not before Mattan Torah (barasi Torah Tavlin), maybe even afterwards. A parent must therefore carefully and seriously think about his child's growth environment.

This “physical aspect of spirituality,” this reflexive revulsion, or abhorrence, of vile things, has relevance to the trait of bushah/modesty as well. A person may have an innate bushah. But doing certain things will destroy his boshes ponim, and it will be impossible to ever get it back. So when Rivkah was exposed to the reiyach ketores of Avodah Zarah of Eisov’s wives, she hated it, it was a maras ruach, it caused her emotional grief, but it did not physically damage her.

Now, the natural reaction to this observation is that one suffers from exposure to evil. But think about this: Yitzchak's reaction was blindness. Rivkah didn't lose her sight, nor did she lose her vision: she was able to recognize and deal with the problems that Eisav created. Who was better off? Yitzchak, whose utter and unblemished purity was incorporated to the extent that, faced with evil, his eyes were ruined? Or Rivkah, whose exposure to evil at a young age enabled her to withstand this new exposure, so her vision, and her ability to recognize what was going on and fight it, remained intact?

What would have happened if both Yitzchak and Rivkah were blinded, and they both thought that Eisav was a tzadik? Maybe Eisav would have gotten the brachos, and Yaakov would have remained a destitute and scholarly footnote of history!

And where do you think Rivkah got the idea to switch Yaakov for Eisav? If Rivkah had grown up in a home of unyielding truth and forthrightness, could her plan have even occurred to her? One might reasonably assume that she learned this shrewd strategy as a child in Besueil's home, the same place her brother Lavan learned it, as we see when he applied the family trick against Yaakov by presenting Leah in place of Rachel.

It happens that R’ Hirsch in this week's parsha also says that overprotectiveness can backfire; sometimes a child needs to confront and overcome his netiyos. Some have said that the fallout rate, the incidence of children that reject orthodoxy, is greater in monolithic, insular communities than in mixed communities. (See, for example, ). Children that are raised Orthodox in a community where alternatives are evident acquire the inner strength and confidence to deal with questions. But certainly, a child that is exposed to sexual behavior before he has the mental and emotional stability and strength to deal with such things will have a very hard time overcoming such influences. So you have to decide which is better-- that your child is pure, an 'olah temimah' like Yitzchak, but unprepared to deal with the inevitable encounters we face in our lives, or that he is safe, in other words not as pure, but stronger in facing religious confrontation. They say that sailors used to be the healthiest people in the world, because they were exposed to the most vile and virulent diseases in the many ports they visited, and they survived. On the other hand, one could say that those sailors all had numerous sub-acute illnessness that they would be better off without.

As is often the case in ma'amarei Chazal, and in life itself, there is no bright line between right and wrong, and there are no easy answers. Nonetheless, forewarned is forearmed: one cannot just let things happen by default. Cautious and prudent parents need to face the issue and carefully consider what is right for their children, and to know that there is no perfect answer, and that whatever they decide involves a tradeoff. The best place to start is to have a religious mentor who has seen the reality of life, and to seek his or her advice. Assei lecha Rav, ve'histalek min hasafeik.


  1. R’SRH, z”l, lessons on chinuch derived from this parsha seem to rest on the midrash that teaches, obliquely, by way of explaining the reason for Isaaq’s blindness, that he was responsible for Esav’s actions. Is suggests that Isaaq, a man of the fields himself, to some extent, perhaps endeavored to education Esav in the manner or Yaqob, unable to acknowledge the difference in their innate character. But is this the case? Isn’t Esav’s status as a rasha indicated early on by the Torah’s description of his phenotype upon his birth? Or is this a description of potential and in fact the character that we are to associate with ruddy and hairiness could have been tempered?

    Shabbat shalom


  2. "So you have to decide which is better-- that your child is pure, an 'olah temimah' like Yitzchak, but unprepared to deal with the inevitable encounters we face in our lives, or that he is safe, in other words not as pure, but stronger in facing religious confrontation."

    As a father of young children I dwell on this constantly. Additional words of advice are welcome...


  3. Akiva, I'm glad you noticed that; every single thinking parent has to wrestle with that issue. My wife and I have very different ideas about it. She believes in limited exposure (though we used to censor the newspaper's comic strips when the kids were very young), and I believe more in isolation. Truth is, we both more or less agree that you have to build a strong and pure base, and then to judiciously introduce the outside world and help them to deal with it. It's all a matter of degree, of dosage. Thank God, it worked out well for our kids, but I think that's all just zechus avos and my wife's endless prakim of tehillim and tears.

    As for Eisav's phenotype/genotype-- see Tosfos Brachos 10, where the Gemara says that Chizkiyahu saw that the child he would have would be a rasha. Tosfos says that this was a nevuah, not a inevitable outcome of Menashe's innate character; just that the fact was that this was the path Menashe would choose. Is this true with Eisav? I don't know. The expressions about 'zikuch' and so on imply the contrary. I'm not forming an opinion until I see something in a rishon.