Posts Tagged ‘honor’

On your honor…

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Devarim: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

"Ye have compassed this mountain long enough…" (Deuteronomy )

In Midrash Rabbah for Devarim – Deuteronomy – each parashah begins with a midrash related to at least one law, one matter of halachah.

The law in question is the commandment to honor one’s parents, and the Sages immediately raise the question I so often hear whenever this commandment is discussed: what if, Heaven forbid, one’s parents are not "worthy" of honor in our eyes?

Part of the answer (found elsewhere in this lengthy midrash) is that, no matter how our parents behave, we must find a way to treat them honorably, as distinct from approving of their behavior. This quickly turns into a discussion of being "zealous" in the pursuit of honoring one’s parents.

This midrash has a couple of stories about how one Dama of Askelon dealt with parents who were apparently quite the challenge: his mother seemed to suffer from what we today know as Alzheimer’s, and slapped him incessantly in public. The challenges his father presented are not made explicit, but you can read the story in the full email.

But the amazing story comes from the son of Gamaliel, and teaches us many lessons. Listen!

Halachah: What is the reward of a Jew who is zealous in his observance of the duty of honoring father and mother? …

as I have done, and yet I find that Esau honored his father even more than I. How?

I usually waited on my father dressed in soiled clothes, but when I went out into the street I discarded these clothes and put on instead handsome clothes. Not so Esau; the clothes in which he was dressed when attending on his father were his best. The proof for this is this.

When he went out hunting in order to bring venison to his father that he might bless him, what did Rebekah who loved Jacob do? She gave him dainties and said to him, ‘Go to your father and receive the blessings before your brother receives them.’

Whereupon Jacob said to her, ‘Mother, do you not know that Esau my brother is A hairy man, and I am a smooth man (Gen. 27:11): Perhaps my father will discover that I am not Esau and I will be put to shame before him.’ Whence this? Because it is said, Peradventure my father will feel me, etc. (ib. 12).

She replied to him: ‘My son, your father’s eyes are dim; I will dress you with the fine clothes which your brother wears when he attends on your father, and when you come to him and he takes hold of your hand he will think that you are Esau and he will bless you.’ And whence this? Because it is said, And Rebekah took the choicest garments of Esau, etc. (ib. 15), that is to say those which he was wont to wear when attending on his father, as it is said, And put them upon Jacob her younger son (ib.).

Hence when Jacob came to him, what did Isaac say? The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau (ib. 22). Isaac blessed him and he went out. Then Esau arrived and entered into the presence of his father. Isaac asked him, ‘Who are you addressing me in such a loud voice?’ He replied: ‘I am thy son, thy firstborn, Esau’ (ib. 32).

As soon as he heard his voice he knew that he was Esau. He said to him: ‘My son, Thy brother came with guile, and hath taken away thy blessing‘ (ib. 35). Thereupon Esau began to cry and to complain: Come and see what this quiet man of whom it is written, And Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents (Gen. 25:27), has done to me. Not enough that he mocked me for selling him my birthright, Behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’ (ib. 27:36).

Hence you learn that Esau was most scrupulous in honoring his parents.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy I:15

The story seems simple: we know that Esau honored his father (at least), because he would change into his best clothes whenever he would expect to be in the presence of his father. The way this is deduced is from the clue that Rebekah took Esau’s finest clothes to dress Jacob in and effect the deception: it must have been a habit of Esau’s, the Sages reason, in order to be effective in the ploy.

The conclusion seems accordingly simple: Esau, who dressed up before entering his father’s presence, showed more respect than did Simeon, who did not. Why does this merit such a large telling?

The first clue is that the "hero" in this story is Esau, who in midrash is one of the most vilified of characters in Torah: the Sages equated Esau with Rome, and the tragic depths of his lament – one of the most poignant amongst our stories

“Do you have but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, Father.” And Esau raised his voice and he wept. (Gen 27:38)

– is lost amongst the Sage’s railings against Rome. So it is remarkable that Esau would be hailed as the exemplar of parental honor.

One way to understand this curiosity is to apply the strategy of reversing the roles in the story. If the "troubled" individual was Jacob – a father with the extreme negativity the Sages allocated to Esau – then suddenly Esau’s "scrupulousness" becomes noteworthy, and makes sense in the context of the larger midrash, which is the value of honoring difficult parents.

Of course, one can take this at a "sweet" level as well: how often do we dress up (literally or metaphorically) for our parents, or other members of our family? Instead of taking them for granted, what would it be like if we treated them like honored guests? I can tell you, categorically, that establishing such a habit will alter our relationships positively, in both directions.

But there is still more in this rich midrash! Let me leave you with a taste of what awaits the observant student:

Notice the phrase above, "Rebekah who loved Jacob." Why is this told to us? It is not present in this story in Torah – the Sages must have had a reason for inserting it.

The answer (and of course, there is not just a single answer!) emerges when we try different variations of this phrase. Try this yourself: how would the story be different if the phrase was:

  • Rebekah who despised Jacob
  • Rebekah who was indifferent to Jacob
  • or simply missing altogether!

What a treat it is to allow ourselves to slip into this rich world!