This is the first in a series of Torah insights from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), excerpted from the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.
יִקְְרבו יְמֵי אֵבֶל אָבִי ואַהְַרגָה אֶת יַעֲקֹב אָחִי
Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Jacob.
There are two mitzvos governing the obligations of a child towards his parents. One of these mitzvos is kibud, honoring one’s parents (Ex.20:12), while the other is morah, having fear and reverence for one’s parents (Lev.19:3). Kibud involves taking care of the parents’ physical needs: providing food, drink, clothing, covering, taking the parent in and out. Morah means respect, recognizing their authority. Maimonides states: One should not stand or sit in his place, nor contradict him, and should not try to get him to change his mind (Hilchos Mamrim, 6:7).
Esau exceeded Jacob in fulfilling the mitzvah of kibud. R. Shimon ben Gamliel said that he wished that he could provide kibud to his parents to the same extent as Esau. Kibud often arises out of an instinctive feeling of self-preservation, as the son knows that a time will come when he himself will require the same services as his father. Kibud can be found in the animal kingdom as well: young eagles provide for older eagles that can no longer fly. Chazal portrayed Esau as a master of kibud. A strong instinct drove Esau to honor Isaac.
How then could Esau later threaten to kill Jacob and so blatantly violate Isaac’s will? Esau would argue that while his father was alive, he had an instinctive weakness for him. Esau himself did not understand the reason for this strange attraction: after all, Isaac was old-fashioned, blind, did not truly understand. But once Isaac died, Esau would forget him as if he never existed.
The true gauge of the relationship between son and father is not in the mitzvah of kibud, but the mitzvah of morah, an imperative that Esau ignored. Kibud is a mitzvah that can only be fulfilled while the parent is alive. The morah imperative, however, is actually stronger in death than in life: as blurred as our memories become regarding our parent’s physical appearance, the greater the gap in time, the stronger the bond. While kibud wanes with distance, morah actually grows with distance. (Yahrzeit Shiur, 1953)