Our parsha introduces two of the main characters in the Torah – Yaakov and Eisav. Yaakov and Eisav are not simply people of yesteryear but rather go on to serve as prototypes which lead us through Jewish history. The never-ending struggle between the two forces dates back to the common womb which they shared, and the struggle has not yet been resolved. While we naturally root for Yaakov, it is important to note that Eisav does seem to have an important lesson to teach us.
Eisav is well known for his dedication to the cardinal mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. A simple reading of the text leans in this direction and the comments of our sages bolster his dedication in this important area. The Gemara in Kiddushin goes to great lengths to describe the importance of this mitzva and relates many far-reaching stories to demonstrate how far one must go to fulfill our obligation. One midrash quotes a sage known for his diligence in this realm and even states that he did not reach the level of Eisav! It would seem, then, that our negative attitude towards Eisav should be relaxed in recognition of this point.
However the villain remains a villain. The commentaries never miss an opportunity to paint Eisav in a negative light and even his kibud av v’aem does not escape their scrutiny.
The Maharal points out that the mitzvah of kibud av v’aem is one of the most basic rational mitzvot. The fundamental aspect of the mitzvah is appreciation to one’s parents for all the time and trouble they went through in the raising of the child. When the parent finds themselves in a needy situation, there is nothing more natural and expected than for the child to reciprocate and care for the parent. The Maharal explains that this is precisely what separates Eisav from Yaakov. We do not observe the mitzvot because of their moral and ethical standards. Our allegiance to the word of God goes way beyond that. Even in situations where we are clueless about the underlying concept, and indeed even in cases where our intuition is in contradiction to the instructions of the Torah, we accept the word of Hashem.
Simply put, it’s “easy” to do kibud av v’aem, as it is one of the most rational instructions, but quite another to observe the laws of kashrut, just to name one example, where we are clueless as to the purpose of the mitzvah. This is a very fundamental point. Had all mitzvot been limited to areas where we appreciate the outcome, we would simply be viewing God as a very adept champion of human values. If we found places where we do not agree, or appreciate the act, we would not observe the practice. This reduces God to “working for us” or at least with our approval. This is not a religious attitude. The most basic element in religious observance is humility and acceptance of God as the ultimate authority.
So according to the Maharal, we can say that Esav ONLY kept kibud av v’aem.
Rav Charlap in his book Mei Marom points to another defect in Eisav, also derived from his special adherence to kibud av v’aem. Rav Charlap sees Eisav as an individual focused on the past. His respect for Yitzchak is indeed impressive but what was really standing behind it? He posits that the true lessons to be learned from the Avot must include a stress on the future. He writes that “it is a tribute to the Avot that their descendants are Yisrael”. In this manner he explains the famous introduction to this week’s parasha. “These are the generations (or actions) of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak”. The sons recognize the importance of the fathers while the fathers have at least as much appreciation for the sons. Yitzchak’s age is calculated from the time he has children – “Yitzchak was sixty years old when he had Yaakov and Eisav.”
Eisav was not particular about choosing a spouse and had little confidence in his offspring. This was the polar opposite in Yaakov. Yaakov traveled a significant distance to find the suitable mate (or mates) and it is Yaakov who is the only one of the Avot who is able to boast that his entire brood remained committed to the values that he was teaching. Famously Chazal describe the scene on his deathbed when his children affirm their allegiance. Chazal put the famous passuk of Shema Yisrael into their script at that point. Hear Yaakov (Yisrael) we are all in agreement that Hashem is our God and He is one.
Let’s not kid ourselves – Yaakov had many moments in his life which, let’s just say, were less than full nachas from his children. It seems that belief in children extends even to the more challenging moments.
We are not allowed to give up on them or look back over our shoulder and lament the fact that Reuven, Shimon and Levi will never be a Yitzchak or Avraham. Our perspective must always be forward looking and with growth in mind. We read a few weeks ago that Hashem was confident that Avraham would instruct his descendents in the way of God. His actions alone are not enough; his real fame, along with that of Yitzchak and Yaakov, is their official title Avot – fathers. The only thing that makes one a father is a child.
This coming Shabbat my family has the zechut of celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of our youngest child. Age thirteen seems a bit young to declare independence and/or full acceptance of responsibility. This is precisely the message that Rav Charlop wrote about. The constant belief that the upcoming generation will reach heights which the older generation did not get to is what pushes us all forward. Thirteen is the age which Chazal describe as the parting of the ways between Yaakov and Eisav. It is the stage where directions are defined and the fun begins.