The Torah tells in Parashat Toledot that Yishak Abinu had special love for Esav because "Sayid Be’fiv" (25:28). Rashi gives two explanations for this phrase: 1) Esav would hunt animals and then bring meat to Yishak; 2) Esav "hunted" Yishak with his mouth, by pretending to be righteous. Specifically, Rashi writes, Esav would ask his father how to tithe straw and salt – products which do not require tithing – to make it appear as though he was pious and meticulous about observing Misvot.
It is inconceivable that Yishak Abinu, a brilliant and saintly man, one of our three sacred patriarchs, could be so easily fooled by Esav. Our Sages depict Esav as a violent, depraved criminal, who was guilty of the most grievous sins. We cannot possibly imagine that Esav could simply deceive Yishak by asking halachic questions which made him appear righteous.
The Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572), as cited by his famous disciple, Rav Haim Vital (1543-1620), explained that Yishak loved Esav because he sensed the spark of holiness within him. Later in history, descendants of Esav converted to Judaism and joined the Jewish People, producing some of the greatest spiritual giants in our nation’s history. Specifically, Shemaya and Abtalyon – the teachers of Hillel and Shammai – descended from converts from among Esav’s offspring, as did Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiba – two of the greatest Tanna’im. When Esav spoke to his father, Yishak sensed the sanctity of these great souls who were already embedded within the soul of Esav. And so he felt special love for Esav, recognizing the powerful spark of holiness within him.
We might develop this point further, by noting one particular position taken by two of Esav’s righteous descendants – Rabbi Akiba and his student, Rabbi Meir. The Gemara in Masechet Baba Batra tells that the Roman nobleman Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva why, in Jewish belief, giving charity to the poor is an important religious value. After all, if G-d decreed that a person should suffer from poverty, what right does anybody have to feed the pauper against G-d’s decree? Turnus Rufus drew a comparison to a person whom the king convicted and had sent to the dungeon. Certainly, no citizen would dare assist the prisoner, who was in contempt of the king. Why, then, would Jews believe in supporting and assisting somebody sentenced by G-d to poverty?
Rabbi Akiba replied that if a king became angry at his child, and condemned the child to the dungeon, he would certainly be pleased by those who bring his child food and water. No matter how angry a person is at his son, and even when he punishes his son severely, he continues loving and caring about the son, and wants him to be cared for. All Jews are Hashem’s children, Rabbi Akiba explained, and so Hashem wants us to care for all our fellow Jews, even those whom He punishes with poverty.
Elsewhere in the Gemara, in Masechet Kiddushin, we read that Rabbi Akiba’s student, Rabbi Meir, said something similar. He asserted that when Moshe said to Beneh Yisrael, "Banim Atem L’Hashem Elokechem" – "You are sons of Hashem your G-d," this means that even if we do not behave properly, we are nevertheless Hashem’s children. Even when we disobey Him and violate the Torah’s laws, even so – a child is always a child, and so Hashem continues loving us like His beloved children. (Rabbi Yehuda, another student of Rabbi Akiba, disagreed, and maintained that we lose the status of Hashem’s children if we do not conduct ourselves properly. It is quite possible, however, that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir debated this question before they became Rabbi Akiba’s students, and once Rabbi Yehuda heard Rabbi Akiba’s position, he accepted this view. Regardless, the Rashba comments that although Halacha generally follows Rabbi Yehuda’s positions in his debates against Rabbi Meir, in this instance, Rabbi Meir’s view is the accepted opinion.)
In light of this notion, we might gain deeper insight into the Arizal’s understanding of Yishak’s special love for Esav.
As mentioned, Rashi writes that Esav posed to his father the question of how to tithe straw and salt. In one version of the Midrash’s text, Esav’s question is, "Eich Metakenin" – literally, "how does one fix" straw and salt. Straw and salt, two especially cheap commodities, represent those who have fallen to the lowest depths, who have strayed far from religious observance. When Esav posed this question, Yishak heard the voices of his illustrious descendants – Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir – insisting that even the lowliest individuals can be "fixed," that they are still cherished and beloved children of Hashem, for whom He cares deeply and whom He wants to return to him. Yishak heard Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir proclaiming through Esav’s mouth that a child is always a child, that Hashem never gives up on any Jew, and so we mustn’t, either. And for this reason, Yishak had special love and affection for Esav. He was well aware of Esav’s misdeeds – but he knew the concept of "Banim Atem L’Hashem Elokechem," as understood by Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir, that we never give up on any Jew, and that we must love and cherish every Jew regardless of his religious standing – because Hashem loves and cherishes every Jew regardless of his religious standing.
In the particular case of Esav, Yishak was mistaken. He did not know of the prophecy which Ribka was told, that Esav was not destined to become part of Hashem’s special nation. Ribka knew that Esav was not going to be part of the Jewish People, and this is why she intervened to ensure that Yaakob would receive the blessing that Yishak was going to give to Esav. In principle, however, Yishak was absolutely correct – a child is always a child. Every Jew is Hashem’s precious son or daughter, and this is how we must view and treat all Jews, regardless of their level of observance.