A Question of Honor
How different can two brothers be? As different as black and white.
The Torah describes how the twin brothers Jacob and Esau were
already veering off in different directions from the time they were
together in the womb. Eventually, Jacob developed into a man of
accomplishment totally absorbed in spiritual and intellectual pursuits,
while Esau became a lusty creature of the wilds, a predator indulging
his every whim and desire. Esau is portrayed as one of the blackest
figures in the Torah, known for all time as “Eisav Harasha,” Esau the
Wicked, the epitome of evil, the nemesis of the Jewish people.
And yet, there is an incongruous note in this portrayal. Esau
honored his father Isaac to such an extraordinary extent that a great
sage is quoted in the Midrash as saying, “I attended to my father all my
life, but never did I do even one percent of what Esau did for his father.”
How can someone who so thoroughly honored his father be so
thoroughly evil in all else?
The Talmud illustrates the extent of the mitzvah of honoring parents
with the following story.
During the time of the Second Temple, it happened that certain
gems of the breastplate of the High Priest needed to be replaced
immediately, but where could such rare gems be found on such short
notice? Someone suggested that a certain a gentile named Dama bar
Nesinah might have the required gems, and a delegation of the Sages
went to his home to investigate the matter.
“We are told you have these gems,” they said after explaining their
predicament. “Is this true?”
“Oh yes, indeed, I have them,” said Dama. “Come back tomorrow,
and we will talk.”
“Tomorrow is much too late,” said the Sages. “We need them
immediately. We are prepared to pay handsomely. Six hundred
Dama gasped at the mention of the exorbitant sum. Then he shook
his head sadly.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said. “You see, the gems are in my
strong room, under lock and key. And the key is in my father’s room,
under his pillow. My father is sleeping now, and I cannot possibly get
the key from under the pillow without waking him. I am sorry. There is
nothing I can do.”
The following year, Dama was again visited by a delegation of the
“We need a parah adumah, a perfect red heifer to use in our
purification ritual,” they said to Dama. “This is a very rare animal, and
we are prepared to pay a fortune for it. Six hundred thousand shekels!
We have heard that just such a red heifer was born in your herd. Is this
“Indeed, it is,” he replied.
“Can you bring it to us without waking your father?”
“I certainly can.”
“Then the money is yours. Hashem has rewarded your
The commentaries take a closer look at this passage in the Talmud
and find a subtle and very profound message. The importance of
honoring parents is a fundamental value in every society and culture
that ever existed, because it is so logical. A person owes his
sustenance, his upbringing, his very existence to his parents. It is a debt
that can never be repaid, and therefore there is no limit to the obligation
to honor one’s parents. Dama, the worthy gentile, understood this and
went to great lengths to honor his father. But the limits of his personal
understanding were also the limits of his righteousness. If he did not
understand it, he would not do it.
The Sages, on the other hand, also went to great lengths in this
story. They paid an exorbitant sum for the mitzvah of parah adumah,
the ultimate example of a divine decree that defies human
understanding, a chok. They accepted the commands of Hashem that
they did not understand with the same enthusiasm and devotion they
accorded to the commands that they did understand.
Esau also honored his father simply because he considered it
logical to do so. There was no connection to Hashem in his
performance of this mitzvah, no elevation of the spirit, no transcendent
expansion of the soul. By honoring his father, Esau did not rise above
his ego, and he remained capable of indulging every one of his selfish
whims and desires.
The mitzvos of the Torah enable us to connect to Hashem and rise
to higher levels of spirituality. Although we cannot always understand
the mitzvos fully, we can always be secure in the knowledge that they
are meant for our own good.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.