Of all the characters mentioned in the first half of the Book of Genesis, none has aroused the disdain of the Rabbis more than Esav. As the Rabbis read the text, the character of Esav was practically pre-ordained. Even within the womb Esav had a proclivity for idolatry. As the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63) tells it, whenever his pregnant mother passed a temple of idolatry Esav as a fetus attempted to emerge from the womb. The later descriptions of Esav as a hunter and a “man of the field” (Genesis 25:27) only confirmed what the Rabbis had already assumed. Esav was an uncivil brute whose progeny would become murderers (Pesiqta Rabbati 21). The Sages saw the descendants of Esav as the quintessential enemies of the Jewish people.
When asked whether Jews could hunt for sport, eighteenth century German authority Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (Noda B’Yehudah, No. 10) could find no legal reason that would prohibit it. But then he observed that the only hunters in the Jewish tradition were Nimrod and Esav and no Jew would ever want to emulate the latter.
The Torah itself, however, paints a different picture of Esav. To be sure, he is crude. He eats and runs. He is gruff in speech and conduct. But it would be facile to accept a caricature of Esav as the whole man. When he discovers that Jacob has stolen the birth-right he approaches his father in tears. Far from the brute he is made out to be, in pleading for a blessing he comes across as pathetic. He may be “hairy” on the outside (Genesis 27:38) but he is a softy on the inside. And when he reunites with his brother Jacob, he graciously refuses any tribute (Genesis 33:9). He is nothing but welcoming, offering to take him under his protection (Genesis 33:12). And when Isaac dies, there is Esav alongside his brother Jacob, paying a final tribute at the burial (Genesis 35:29).
That Esav would perform this last act of filial piety is not surprising. The text had already revealed that Isaac loved Esav (Genesis 25:28). There is reason to believe the feelings were mutual. The question is always why, if the Midrashic reading is correct, did Isaac love Esav? Surely it must be more than a craving for the tasty meat that his son would bring him. Isaac saw in Esav the redeeming quality of familial devotion. Isaac may have been blind, but he was nevertheless insightful. Perhaps the message for readers is never make a hasty judgment about character given that even those who are perceived as the worst among us may still be people of worth.