5756 - #4

Esav and Parental Respect

Esav's concern for his father is legendary. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in Devarim Rabbah states: "No-one honoured a father more than me, yet I have found that the honour Esav showed for his father was even greater."[1] Esav's concern for his father is even found clearly in the text. Bereishit 27:41 informs us that, after Yaakov's trick with the blessing, Esav says to himself that soon it will be the mourning period for his father and then he will kill Yaakov. He refrains from attacking Yaakov immediately because of the pain it would cause to his father.[2] Esav also decides to find a new wife from the daughters of Yishmael because of the pain his marriages to Cannanite women caused Yitzchak.[3] It is indeed strange that Esav -- who committed five principal sins in one day[4] and pushed G-d to end Avraham Avinu's life five years early lest Avraham see his grandson violate the three cardinal commandments[5] -- this Esav harasha, serves as a model for the mitzvah of kibud av v'em, honouring parents.

Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 33 writes, in explaining the commandment to honour parents, that its essence is hakeret hatov, the proper recognition of good that has been done in a person's behalf. He further writes that when one establishes, within one's being, this quality of recognizing and marking good, one will be led to recognize the goodness of G-d. This, though, was obviously not the case with Esav. Why did he develop this intense respect for his father yet not develop a similar respect for G-d? Why did he, in fact, follow this call to honour? And what about Yaakov's performance of this mitzvah?

Which particular act, or acts, of parental goodness is the Chinuch referring to as the basis of this mitzvah? Our initial response may be the acts involved in raising the child; these are done for the child, for his or her good. Yet, while an adoptive parent is indeed deserving of respect, the essence of the mitzvah applies to the blood parent, not necessarily the one who brings up the child. The Chinuch, in fact, states that the good that should be marked is the fact that the parents brought the child into the world, they are the reason for the child's existence. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein[6] states that this recognition of parents because they give life is not solely a concept in hashkafa, Jewish thought, but, in fact, has halachic validity. Rav Moshe also states that this concept not only exists in the realm of declared mitzvot, but is inherent to us as human beings. Even the non-Jew, although not commanded even by the Noachide Code to honour parents, recognizes this idea. We enter this world as part of a chain with parents as the anchors - and through our honouring of them, we acknowledge this aspect of our existence.

It is this concept that Esav fully recognized. He had roots and he had ambitions. The desire for a bracha demonstrated that his concerns were also for the future, for his descendants. Esav saw himself as part of the chain - and so he tied himself to his anchor. His interests, though, were only for this world. His hakeret hatov for his father did not lead to a similar hakeret hatov for G-d because Esav was not interested in the Divine realm. This absence, though, also affected the very nature of Esav's respect for Yitzchak. While noteworthy and praiseworthy, Esav's relationship with Yitzchak could not serve as a model for Yaakov, or us today, as an ideal formulation of this mitzvah.

Rashi[7] informs us that Esav used to mis-lead Yitzchak by presenting himself as someone who was zealously pious. Was Esav trying to mock Yitzchak or to impress him togain better treatment? It would seem no, for Esav was someone who truly cared for and respected his father. Parents, though, often have certain perceptions of their children that they wish to be true. In order not to hurt a parent, a child will sometimes lie to maintain the perception. Esav presented himself to Yitzchak as one who is pious, so that Yitzchak would feel good. The problem, though, is that this was not the truth.

Esav's sole concern was the feelings of his father. This, though, is the realm solely of this world. The introduction of the Divine realm demands ultimate substance - and the truth. Yitzchak wished Esav to be pious because of the truth of the righteous path. His desire was not solely for Esav to make him feel good but for Esav to accept the truth of G-d. For there to be substance in the relationship between parent and child, if this relationship is to encompass the Divine, there must be truth even at the expense of the parent's feeling. Esav did not care about G-d, so he could lie to protect Yitzchak's feelings. In terms of parental respect, this shows concern for the parent and is admirable. Within the larger picture embracing the Divine, though, this cannot be our ultimate model.

Yaakov, the man of truth, could not adopt Esav's path in his relationship with his parents. His relationship with his parents demanded substance. Esav's acting, in fact, is only beneficial if one believes that there is really no essence to reality, that all that matters is the feeling. Yaakov's truth may, at times, hurt and break desired perceptions - but it is necessary if we are to give substance to life - and the parental relationship - through the infusion of the Divine.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] Devarim Rabbah 1:15. For further sources indicating the high esteem the Sages held for Esav in the performance of this command, i.e. honouring parents, see Ishei HaTanach, Esav, Kavod Aviv.

[2] See also Rashi and Siftei Chachamim on this verse.

[3] Bereishit 28:8.

[4] See T.B. Baba Bathra 15b and Yalkut Me'am Loez, Bereishit 25:29.

[5] Idolatry, Arayot (Immorality) and Murder. See Bereishit Rabbah 63:12.

[6] See Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 2:130. Rav Moshe argues that since Halacha argues that one's rebbe, under certain circumstances, may have precedence over one's parents because one's rebbe brings one to the future world while parents only bring one to this world, the argument of hakeret hatov because one is born must be deemed as having halachic significance.

[7] Commentary to Bereishit 25:27. Rashi informs us that Esav, to demonstrate his piety, would ask Yitzchak how to tithe salt even though salt obviously did not need to be tithed. See also Rashi, Bereishit 25:28.

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