Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmin Shapira (also known as The Piaseczno Rebbe or the Aish Kodesh, 1889-1943 Poland) introduces his book, The Students’ Obligation, by defining the meaning of education. He states that education is not instruction, nor is it mere habituation. The goal of education is much more than simply instilling onto a child that they are to do this and that. While instruction and habituation are tools a teacher may use, education is an altogether greater and more lofty pursuit. The true essence of education is for a child once grown to be her own master, no longer under the auspices of her instructors, to continue on and not turn from her teachings. This beautiful articulation of education comes to illuminate Esau’s downfall.
As the Piaseczno Rebbe warns, only true education ensures our students won’t scorn the path on which we point them. He quotes King Shlomo saying “Educate a young man according to his way, then when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Surely at home Isaac teaches Esau the difference between right from wrong, but Esau grows to be a hunter, a man of the field איש ידע ציד איש שדה (Breishit 25:27). Esau spends the majority his time away from home – away from living examples of his edification.
Esau may attend his lessons, but he does not live in relationship with them. Once he is the master of his own domain, even before his parents pass away, Esau begins rejecting his upbringing. We read that Esau takes two wives of Hittite progeny, the pair of whom become a source of bitterness to both Rebecca and Isaac (Breishit 26:35).
Another troubling example occurs early in our story. Having returned from hunting in the field, Esau asks for/demands a portion of the stew Jacob is stewing. Jacob sets Esau’s birthright as the price for a nourishing bowl. In response, Esau retorts, ״הנה אנוכי הולך למות ולמה-זה לי בכרה״ “Behold, I go to death – what is this birthright to me?!” (Breishit 25:32). A first read of this puzzling response, and the interpretation that many hold, is that Esau is asking a rhetorical question. If he is going to die from hunger, what good is possessing his birthright?!
Rashi (11c. France) expounds on Esau’s statement, offering a different understanding. Citing the midrash, he says at that moment Esau asked his brother to explain the full implications of the birthright. Jacob answered by elucidating the temple service obligations and the punishment of death accompanying their mistreatment. Hearing this, Esau proclaimed, ‘what good is this birthright to me if my inevitable inability to uphold its responsibilities will only lead to my demise?!’ Devoid of a relationship with his tutelage, Esau sees no merit in the rights and responsibilities of his inheritance. Thus, confronted with the enticing desires of immediate gratification, he easily abandons his ties.
It seems to me that we are in danger of sending so many of our young people today down the path of Esau. We diligently reinforce instructional systems outside of the home that attempt to ensure our future generations knowing how to x, y, and z. We enthusiastically empty our pocket books for the same old programs hoping that, maybe this one off event will habituate our children to . . . Yet in terms of education, true education – in giving authentic, meaningful, and relational experiences that occur from when we rise in the morning to when we lie down at night, we continue to fall short.
Education is like a fire. Its light can be perceived from afar, but without coming close, all we really see are dancing shadows. A fire’s warmth can be felt from a distance, but without a relationship – without feeding and tending to its living needs, its sustenance will steadily burn out. I bless us all that we may together give our young people relationships, educating them ‘that they [the ways of the Torah] are our life and the length of our days’ (כי הם חיינו וארך ימינו).”