Yesterday, we made mention of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s remark cited by the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:16) marveling at the level at which Esav showed respect to his father:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: I served my father my entire life, yet I did not serve him 1/100th of how Esav served his father. When I would serve my father, I would serve him with soiled clothing, and when I would leave to travel, I would go out with clean clothes. But Esav, when he would serve his father, he served him only with royal garments. He said, “It is not respectful to Father to serve him other than in royal garments.”
How might we understand Rabban Shimon’s praise for Esav’s respect for his father? Why was it so admirable that Esav ensured to wear fine clothing when tending to his father, and if this is indeed a virtue, then why did not Rabban Shimon do the same?
Yesterday, we proposed (based on an earlier Midrashic passage) that Rabban Shimon perhaps did not intend to praise Esav, but to the contrary, pointed to Esav’s hypocrisy, as he ensured to maintain the highest possible standards of respect for his father while ignoring other, far more basic, moral obligations. There may, however, be an additional way to explain Rabban Shimon’s remark.
Possibly, Rabban Shimon here observes the common phenomenon of people wearing “clean clothes” outside the home, but wearing “soiled clothing” inside the home. There is a tendency to appear and conduct oneself in a dignified and respectable manner around people outside the family, but to lower standards within the home. Many people, for example, seldom express anger and frustration outside the home, but frequently lose their temper among their family members. They ensure to maintain a refined, disciplined and controlled demeanor in their dealings outside the family, but are rude, discourteous and insensitive to their family members. Understandably, around family members we tend to feel more comfortable and at ease than we do among other people, and thus difficult emotions which we suppress in public are released in the home environment.
Rabban Shimon, however, takes note of the fact that Esav did just the opposite. As Chazal describe elsewhere, Yitzchak was misled to believe that Esav was noble and righteous, because in the home he conducted himself with dignity and piety, even as outside the home he acted without any moral constraints. Rabban Shimon points out that whereas he – and most people – save their “clean clothes” for outside the home, Esav did just the opposite, wearing his “finest clothes” specifically at home, in his relationship with his parents, and wore “soiled clothes” outside the home, where he violated even the most basic norms of decency.
If so, then Rabban Shimon here teaches us to learn from Esav’s example in the sense of trying to restore, at least to some extent, the balance between our behavior inside and outside the home. Esav is not to be admired for the sharp contrast between his noble conduct in his father’s presence and his immoral conduct elsewhere, but many of us are guilty of the opposite fault – saving our “finest clothing” for outside the home, and showing our family our “soiled clothing.” If there’s something to learn from Esav’s example, it is that we should always make an effort to wear our “finest clothing” in our dealings with all people, even within the privacy of our homes and in our relationships within our families.