Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Toldot

Parashat Toldot

December 3, 2014

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

The negative attitude towards Esau in rabbinic literature is familiar to many and exemplified by the midrash that states “It is a well known teaching [halakhah] that Esau hates Jacob.” (Sifre on Deuteronomy, Beha’alotkha 69) These midrashim were not talking just about Jacob and Esau, these two figures were, in the words of Gerson D. Cohen, “archetypal symbols of Jewry and Rome.” (found in Gerson D. Cohen, “Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought”)

Did the Rabbis have anything positive to say about Esau? As a matter of fact, they did. The following midrashim show that the rabbis were able to find something good even in somebody who was described so negatively such as Esau. We are challenged to look beyond the negativity in order to find the positive in everyone.

“And Rebecca took the choicest garments of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house” (27:15)-In which [garments] he was wont to serve his father. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: I have served my father all my life, yet I have not done one hundreth of the service that Esau did his father. For when I served my father, I would do so in soiled clothing, and when I went out of the house, I would put on clean clothing. Esau however, when he served his father, would do so only in royal raiments, saying “it would be disrespectful to my father to serve him in anything less than royal raimants”, as it is written: “which were with her in the house.” (Genesis Rabbah, 65:16)

“It can be inferred a fortiori, if kings and rulers run to cleave to Esau, who observed only a single precept-honoring his father-how much more so Jacob…” (Sifre on Deuteronomy, 336; Genesis Rabbah 82:14)

Sources: Irit Aminoff, “Toledot-And these are the generations of Isaac” in Wisdom by the Week; Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.