“Did you love him when he was religious?” asked Rav Kook. “Of course,” replied the father. “Well then,” Rav Kook replied, “now love him even more.”
Sometimes love can do what rebuke cannot. It may be that the Torah is telling us that Isaac was anything but blind as to his elder son’s true nature. But if you have two children, one well behaved, the other liable to turn out badly, to whom should you devote greater attention? With whom should you spend more time?
It may be that Isaac loved Esau not blindly but with open eyes, knowing that there would be times when his elder son would give him grief, but knowing too that the moral responsibility of parenthood demands that we do not despair of or disown a wayward son.
Did Isaac’s love have an effect on Esau? Yes and no. It is clear that there was a special bond of connection between Esau and Isaac. This was recognized by the Sages: “Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: No man ever honored his father as I honored my father, but I found that Esau honored his father even more” (Devarim Rabbah 1:15).
Rabbi Shimon derives this from the fact that usually people serve their parents wearing ordinary clothes, while they reserve their best for going out. Esau, however, had kept his best clothes in readiness to serve his father the food he had gone out to hunt. That is why Jacob was able to wear them while Esau was still out hunting (Genesis 27:14).
We find, much later in the Torah, that G-d forbids the Israelites to wage war against Esau’s descendants. He tells Moses:
Give the people these orders: “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own” (Deuteronomy 2:4-5).
And later still Moses commands the Israelites: “Do not abhor an Edomite [i.e. a descendant of Esau], for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:8).
The Sages saw these provisions as an enduring reward to Esau for the way he honored his father.
So, was Isaac right or wrong to love Esau? Esau reciprocated the love but remained Esau, the hunter, the man of the field, not the man to carry forward the demanding covenant with the invisible G-d and the spiritual sacrifices it called for. Not all children follow the path of their parents. If it was Isaac’s intent that Esau should do so, he failed. But there are some failures that are honorable. Loving your children, whatever they become, is one – for surely that is how G-d loves us.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.