The Midrash Ha-gadol, in a remarkable passage (Bereishit 25:28), addresses the famous question of why Yitzchak loved and showed preference to Esav. Esav was clearly a problematic character, and is portrayed in Midrashic and Talmudic literature as a villain, whereas Yaakov is depicted as pious and studious. The Midrash thus asks, “Did our patriarch Yitzchak not know that Esav’s conduct was unbecoming? Why did he love him?”
The Midrash answers, “He loved him only outwardly, in order to draw him close and bring him near… If his conduct was improper when he loved him, how much more so [would his conduct have been improper] if he had despised him and distanced him!” According to the Midrash, Yitzchak reacted to Esav’s sinful conduct and character by showering him with love and affection, hoping that this would have the effect of inspiring some degree of change. And the Midrash, remarkably, contends that the strategy was effective. Although Esav is known as sinful, ruthless and corrupt, the Midrash claims that he would have been even worse were it not for his father’s unconditional love and affection.
A source for this contention can be found in the Torah, in reference to Esav’s marriage. Before the story of Yaakov’s seizing the blessings intended for Esav, the Torah informs us that Esav married two Chittite women, which caused great distress to Yitzchak and Rivka (26:34-35). Later, towards the end of Parashat Toledot (28:8), we read, “Esav saw that the women of Canaan were evil in the eyes of his father, Yitzchak,” and decided to marry Yishmael’s daughter. Significantly, Esav was affected specifically by his father’s displeasure with his wives, but not by Rivka’s objections. Both Yitzchak and Rivka opposed Esav’s marriage to Chittite women, but Esav’s change of heart resulted only from Yitzchak’s distress. It did not bother him that his mother, who had rejected him, was displeased, but he was troubled by his loving father’s displeasure.
The Midrash Ha-gadol concludes its comments by noting, “Our Sages said: The right shall always draw close, and the left push away.” Chazal viewed Yitzchak’s handling of Esav as a model to be followed in relating to those who deviate from the proper path of conduct. We must express displeasure and opposition, but this should be secondary (“the left”) to the love and affection that we must continue to exhibit (“the right”). The Midrash teaches us that we must work to draw even “Esav” close to us, with love and warmth, because every bit of love and warmth can have an impact – however minor – on the person’s conduct. And, perhaps most importantly, the Midrash teaches us that even a minor impact is significant. We must never despair from trying to inspire and guide a fellow Jew, because every small ounce of growth and improvement is a meaningful achievement. Just as Yitzchak refused to give up on Esav, we must never allow ourselves to give up on anyone, and must instead draw all people close with our “right,” even as we disapprove “with our left” of their chosen path.
(Based on an article by Rav Amnon Bazak)