2008We know the scene. A kinetic blur of activity, the hunter Esau bursts into the tent, and finds his brother Jacob cooking a stew. Suddenly desperate for the "red stuff," Esau is willing to trade anything – even the family birthright – for a bowl of his brother’s concoction. Jacob, ever the crafty "heel," is only too willing to oblige.
Esau the first ADHD student?
What are we to make of Esau's actions? Certainly, Esau doesn't fare so well in the rabbinic calculation. Shifting the discussion from Jacob's deception to Esau's character, the sages conclude that Esau simply didn't deserve his status as first-born. Sforno, for instance, claims that Esau's Torah nickname – Edom, “Red” – is derogatory, as if to say, "You are so divorced from normal human values that you can only see food by it's color – a person like you should be red, like that stew you want so much!"
Ouch. Does this seem unfair? If so, what do we do with Esau?
First, remember that Esau the hunter did not hoard the produce of his hunting. Rather, he used his labor to show his love for Isaac, bringing his father fresh and tender meat. How many parents wouldn't mind their kid bringing a nice steak dinner every week?
So if he does respect his father, why does Esau so callously spurn the paternal birthright, selling it for stew? Certainly we could call the behavior "impulsive."
Impulsivity is to be expected from a man who is skilled at hunting – he must make immediate judgments about external stimuli out in the field.
An outdoorsman. A man of high activity. A man of impulsive behavior. Dr. Ora Horn-Prouser has suggested the possibility that in Esau, we have the first recorded case study of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Was Esau the first ADHD student?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) lists a set of criteria that often characterize persons with ADHD. An ADHD individual is easily distracted, often acting impulsively. Frequently, he will hop from one activity to another, without completing the first – a trait often labeled as a character-flaw, a "lack of follow-through."
Selling the birthright for food, then, may be evidence of an ADHD diagnosis – after all, Esau has just returned from the field, presumably hunting. Did he not have game that he himself could prepare? But that would take forever. The stew is in front of him, already prepared. For the ADHD individual, the prospect of pursuing a deliberative process with a hazy outcome promised at an uncertain time can seem unbearable. The "new thing" in front of his face, on the other hand, can suddenly become the sole object of his laser-like focus.
The text gives further illustration of a man captive to his own impulsive behavior. After securing the stew, the text relates of Esau that vayochal vayeisht vayakom vayeiACH, "he ate, he drank, he got up, he left . . ." A list of verbs, all denoting action, all in quick succession. No nouns, and no deliberation – all physical, all movement.
The APA also notes that the ADHD individuals often misplace key materials, and may have a poor sense of time. Explicit instructions can be helpful here. Think about Isaac. When sending Esau to hunt for one of his final meals, Isaac still tells his son ata sa-na cheilecha tel’y’cha v’kashtecha, "now please take your gear, your quiver and your bow." Shouldn't the lifelong hunter know what to take? Isaac continues, tzei ha-sadeh v’tzudah li tzayid va’asei li . . . v’haviah li, "go out into the field and hunt for me some game – and prepare it for me . . . and bring it to me . . ." Perhaps Isaac knows his son very well.
Some of you, of course, may be skeptical. Our society is often suspicious of the diagnosis. Many people think nothing of ridiculing ADHD in public, forgetting that people in the room may have ADHD or have family with ADHD.
Seeing the condition in our sacred texts gives us a forum to discuss it with compassion and consideration. Furthermore, we see that there are ways to deal with the condition to augment the pharmaceutical help available. Remember Isaac's detailed instructions to his son, helping Esau carry out the tasks he needs to complete. Remember too Isaac's love for Esau. Rather than taking his behavior as a personal affront, Isaac lovingly devises ways for Esau to succeed.
As Hillel professionals, we meet all types of students. Some of them seem to succeed effortlessly. Some are not so lucky. May we have the foresight to look for those students whose challenges may obscure their brilliance. May we have the compassion and patience of our father Isaac to walk with such students, helping their lights to shine as the stars of the sky.
Written by Michael Rothbaum, campus Rabbi/program director at Hillels of Westchester.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Toledot at MyJewishLearning.com.