Heaven and Earth
Honoring parents is considered one the most exalted commandments in the
Torah. It occupies a position of primacy among the first five commandments
on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, along with the commandments
safeguarding the honor of God.
One would expect that the ultimate practitioners of this commandment would
be found among the most righteous people in the world. Paradoxically,
however, the Talmud identifies Isaac’s evil son Esau as the greatest
exemplar of a person who honors his father. The Talmud tells us that Esau
had a set of special garments that he wore when he entered his father’s
presence. Not even the great Sages of the Talmud penetrated so deeply into
the essence of this commandment.
But a different profile of Esau emerges from the Biblical account. The
Torah tells us that Esau married two women steeped in idolatry and that
this caused great heartache and anguish to Isaac and Rebecca, his parents.
It was not until he lost his father’s blessings that Esau married the more
suitable daughter of his uncle Ishmael. How do we reconcile Esau, the
supremely obedient son who enters his father’s presence in absolute awe,
with Esau, the rebellious son who marries women that are the antithesis of
everything his parents represent? And why didn’t the righteous Jacob,
Esau’s younger brother, rise to a similar level of honoring his parents?
The commentators explain that Esau held his father in the highest regard,
viewing him as a veritable angel from Heaven. When he entered his father’s
room, Esau felt as if he were stepping into another world, leaving his
earthly existence behind and entering the celestial domain. He thought it
appropriate to wear special garments, and he stood before his father
trembling in submission and awe.
But what about his own life? Esau looked upon his father as an angel and
respected him for it, but he himself was not yet prepared for the angelic
existence. He was a down-to-earth man, and his lifestyle reflected it.
When it came to marriage, he chose women that suited his own inclination.
Jacob, on the other hand, related to his father as a human being rather
than some celestial creature. He saw his father as the symbol of how a man
should live in this world. Therefore, he lived by his father’s values and
ideals. He many have treated his father with the transcendent awe of
unbridgeable distance, but by following in his footsteps, he gave his
father the only honor that is truly meaningful. A man traveled a great
distance to ask a sage’s advice on a complicated business matter. After
explaining the situation and filling in all the details, he presented his
The sage thought over the matter for a long while, then he gave the man
his answer. The advice was brilliant, and the man was very please. “Now
let us talk about something else, my son,” said the sage. “Let us discuss
your spiritual condition. Perhaps I can give you some good advice on that
“No, thank you,” said the man. “I got what I came for. I do not think you
can give me any other advice that I need.”
“Really?” said the sage. “You traveled all this way for my advice on a
business matter, which is not really my specialty, and you are happy with
my advice. Don’t you think I could give you good and useful advice on
issues of spirituality, which is my specialty?”
“You don’t understand,” said the man. “Money is money. It doesn’t matter
if I am talking about it or you are. But spirituality? Hey, I’m not ready
for that stuff yet. When I’m ready, I’ll come ask your advice.”
“If that is your attitude,” said the sage, “I expect you’ll never come.”
In our own lives, we look up to our great leaders and spiritual sage. We
respect and admire them. We even revere them, but do we relate to them on
a personal level? Do we pattern our lives after the lessons we learn from
them? The ultimate reverence is to recognize that their lives are
meaningful to us, that each of us on his own level and in his own way can
enrich his life immeasurably by applying the teachings of the sages to
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.