Parashat Toldot tells the story of the blessings which Yitzchak intended to grant to his son, Esav, but which were given to Yaakov, who came before Yitzchak disguised as Esav. We read that Yitzchak instructed Esav to hunt game and prepare meat for him, whereupon he would grant him his blessings. The Torah writes that Esav left “to hunt game to bring” (27:5).
Noting the seemingly superfluous word “le-havi” (“to bring”) in this verse, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:13), cited by Rashi, comments, “If he didn’t find game, he would bring via theft.” The Torah’s emphasis on Esav’s intent “to bring” game for his father suggests that Esav was unconditionally committed to this goal, even to the point of violating the most elementary ethical norms if this became necessary.
These comments of the Midrash should perhaps lead us to read another, more famous, Midrashic passage in a new light. A bit later in Bereishit Rabba (65:16), the Midrash cites Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel as effusively praising the standard at which Esav showed respect to his father. Rabban Shimon remarked that although he himself devotedly tended to his father, he did so in his ordinary clothing, whereas when he left the house, he made a point of wearing clean clothes. Esav, by contrast, tended to his father on a higher standard, as he always ensured to wear dignified clothing when he served his father, feeling that it would be inappropriate to come before his father appearing unkempt. In light of the Midrash’s comment cited above, we might suggest that Rabban Shimon Gamliel’s remark is not entirely complimentary. While on the one hand Esav’s devotion to his father is certainly admirable, it is clear from the Midrash’s depiction of Esav that he lived a morally imbalanced and hypocritical life. His exaggerated emphasis on the ideal of kibbud av contrasted sharply with his immoral conduct in every other area of life, and, as such, it is not necessarily something for us to emulate. The fact that Esav was prepared to steal if this was necessary to fulfill his father’s request bespeaks a woefully distorted scale of priorities, and shows that he exaggeratedly pursued excellence with regard to one particular important value while entirely neglecting all others.
Chazal’s depiction of Esav’s exaggerated fulfillment of kibbud av serves as a warning not to overemphasize one area of religious life, viewing it as the central Torah value around which all other values revolve. Torah life requires carefully balancing a wide array of different obligations, responsibilities and ideals, and when we inordinately focus upon one, we necessarily end up compromising the others. Just as Esav was prepared to steal for the sake of fulfilling his father’s wishes, we, too, are prone to neglect certain religious responsibilities for the sake of excelling in others. Chazal here alert us to the vital importance of balance and proportion, and instruct us to ensure that our passionate devotion to one religious ideal does not lead us to neglect the others.