The Power of Childhood Memories

Vayehi ki zaken Yitzchak vatich’hena einav meir’os (Bereishis 27:1)

The Torah records that Yitzchak was blind at the end of his life, which enabled Yaakov to deceive him to receive the blessings that were intended for Esav. Rashi explains that Yitzchak suffered so much from the wicked, idolatrous practices of Esav’s wives that he lost his vision. If so, why didn’t their actions have the same effect on Rivkah? The Midrash explains that Rivkah wasn’t impacted as intensely because she was accustomed to seeing idolatry in her father’s house.

The Hadar Zekeinim points out that this Midrash is difficult to understand. The Gemara in Kesuvos (20b) rules that a witness is only permitted to testify about an event for up to 60 years after witnessing it. After that time, his testimony is not accepted, since he is presumed to have forgotten the event. Since Rivkah was married for 20 years before having children and Esav got married when he was 40 (26:34), 60 years had passed since Rivkah left her father’s idolatrous house. Shouldn’t she have forgotten it by now and been equally affected by the wicked actions of her daughters-in-law?

Harav Benzion Brook answers that although a person may no longer consciously remember an event after 60 years have passed, its imprint will remain with him eternally. Even though Rivkah left her father’s house at the tender age of three, the spiritual impact of her surroundings was permanently etched upon her soul. It was for this reason that Eliezer was so adamant that she return with him immediately, instead of remaining in her parents’ house for another year as was suggested (24:55–56). Eliezer recognized the damage which was being done to Rivkah’s lofty soul on a daily basis, and he insisted that she leave at once to prevent additional, irreparable harm from being done.

Harav Henoch Leibowitz points out that this is even more remarkable in light of the fact that Rivkah rebelled against everything her father stood for. She presumably hated idolatry even more than Yitzchak, for she had been exposed to it and rejected it. We may derive from here that even when one is fighting against negative environs and surroundings, he is nevertheless affected and pulled down by them. This lesson should highlight for us the importance of considering and monitoring the influences to which we allow ourselves and our children to be exposed.

Q: If Rivkah knew the truth about Esav’s wickedness, why didn’t she ever insist that he be sent away so as not to negatively influence Yaakov, just as Sarah forcefully sent Yishmael away to protect Yitzchak?

Q: Rashi writes (27:33) that when Esav entered the room to receive his father’s blessings, Yitzchak began to tremble in fear because he saw Gehinnom open beneath Esav, and this stood in sharp contrast to the fragrant aroma of Gan Eden which accompanied Yaakov when he entered the room (Rashi 27:27). As Esav’s wickedness had been concealed from his father until now, what suddenly changed which caused Yitzchak to recognize the truth and see Gehinnom open underneath him?

A: The Netziv notes that when Rivkah first encountered Yitzchak, he was praying. When he prayed, he was so removed from this world that he appeared angelic, and Rivkah slipped off her donkey and covered herself out of reverence for this holy man (24:64–65). This initial encounter gave her such a deeply-ingrained respect for Yitzchak that she was unable to directly confront him for the rest of their married life, such as to demand that he send Esav away.

Harav Yosef Sorotzkin points out that Sarah did not give birth to Yishmael as Rivkah did to Esav, and no matter how badly a child may behave, a mother is still a mother and is unable to bear the pain of sending away her own child. Alternatively, Rashi writes (25:27) that when Yaakov and Esav were young, they were similar in their actions and there was no reason to send Esav away. Only after they turned 13 did Esav’s wicked nature manifest itself, and at that point Yaakov was old enough that Rivkah was no longer concerned that he would be negatively influenced. The Brisker Rav explains that when she was expecting, Rivkah was prophetically informed that she would give birth to twins, who would be separated after they were born (25:23), meaning that the wicked one would have no sway over the righteous one, in which case there was no need to send Esav away.

A: Harav Meir Shapiro writes that each mitzvah that a person does creates a special spiritual light, and each of the 613 mitzvos has its own unique light. Although Yaakov was certainly far more righteous than his brother, Esav, there was one mitzvah that Esav performed with more dedication than Yaakov: honoring his parents. As a result, whenever Yitzchak interacted with his sons, he noticed that Yaakov had many more spiritual lights than Esav due to the fact that he excelled in his performance of 612 of the mitzvos, but he was also aware that Esav possessed one unique light that Yaakov was missing. This caused Yitzchak to conclude that although Yaakov may have been more righteous, there was also at least one mitzvah in which Esav was superior to him, and this blinded Yitzchak to recognizing Esav’s true colors. This all changed when Yaakov risked being cursed by his father in order to fulfill his mother’s instructions (27:12–13). This self-sacrifice for the mitzvah of honoring his mother created a spiritual light equal to the one that had always accompanied Esav. When Esav entered the room, Yitzchak noticed that he no longer had any unique spiritual light to differentiate him from Yaakov, which enabled Yitzchak to finally recognize the truth and see Gehinnom open beneath him.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email