To be Righteous or not to be Righteous, that is the Question
To be Righteous or not to be Righteous, that is the Question
This week’s parsha opens with Yitzchak and Rivka davening (praying) to Hashem for children. The pasuk (verse) says, “And Hashem allowed Himself to be entreated by him” (Parshas Toldos, 25:21). Rashi (based on a Gemara in Meseches Yevamos chap. 6, “Haba Al Yevimto”, pg. 64a, Rebbi Yitzchak) points out that the verse emphasizes that Hashem listened to his prayers, indicating that Hashem did not listen to her prayers. The reason for this is because there is no comparison between the prayers of a tzaddik (righteous person) who is the son of a tzaddik to the prayers of a tzaddik (or in this case, a tzaddeikes) who is the son (or daughter) of a rasha (wicked person). Therefore, Hashem listened to him (Yitzchak, a tzaddik ben tzaddik) and not to her (Rivka, a tzaddeikes bas rasha).
This passage seems difficult to understand, because, apparently, a tzaddik ben rasha is greater than a tzaddik ben tzaddik because a tzaddik ben rasha finds himself in an environment which is not conducive to spirituality, to say that least. The hometown of a rasha is often antagonistic towards religion. For a person to become righteous in such an atmosphere requires a tremendous amount of effort to swim against the tide. This is a challenge which the tzaddik ben tzaddik is not faced with.
To strengthen this question, a famous Gemara in Meseches Berachos (chap. 5, “Ein Omdin”, pg. 34b) cites Rebbi Avahu who said that righteous people who have never sinned (tzaddikim gemurim; who are presumably coming from very religious families) will not be able to stand in the place of those who have returned to a life of observance (ba’alei teshuva). Meaning, people who were raised as not religious, but who chose a life of observance, are greater than those who were raised observant to begin with.
Therefore, Rivka should have been considered greater than Yitzchak. As such, it should have been Rivka’s prayers that Hashem heeded, not Yitzchak’s. Why, then, did Hashem specifically accept the tefillos (prayers) of Yitzchak?
In his sefer Ta’am Vada’as, Rav Moshe Shternbuch says that although Yitzchak grew up in an observant setting, he was not satisfied to serve Hashem by rote. A verse in Yeshaya (29:13) says, “Their fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands (mitzvas anashim milumada).” When a person grows up religious, it is possible that the performance of mitzvos becomes habitual. After all, mitzva practice is what this person has been doing ever since he was young. Doing mitzvos from such a young age can become second nature where there is not much thought, emotion, excitement or enthusiasm invested into them.
Conversely, geirim (converts) and ba’alei teshuva tend to bring excitement, enthusiasm, fervor, and passion to mitzva performance because Torah and mitzvos are new and fresh to them.
Although Yitzchak was raised with Torah and mitzvos from the time that he was a baby, he worked on himself not to take them for granted. Rather, he worked on himself to strive for higher and higher spiritual levels to such a degree that the mitzvos became like fresh and new ways to serve Hashem. Yitzchak’s mitzva performance today was a whole new experience than it was with respect to yesterday’s service of God.
Yitzchak kept raising the bar to such a degree that every mitzva took on new dimensions. Yitzchak invested so much energy into the study of the mitzvos that when he performed them, it was like an entirely new mitzva that he had never done before. In other words, Yitzchak was not just an FFB (frum from birth), rather, he was also a BT (ba’al teshuva).
The Ta’am Vada’as posits that for a veteran to maintain freshness in old mitzvos is a greater feat and a greater level than a newly initiated person who feels the freshness in Avodas Hashem because the mitzvos are actually new to him (the ba’al teshuva). Sometimes, it is more natural for a BT to feel the excitement. However, sometimes it may be more difficult for an FFB to experience that enthusiasm because of his familiarity with the mitzvos. Since Yitzchak constantly worked on making the Torah and mitzvos fresh, new, and exciting, Yitzchak was on an even higher level than Rivka.
Additionally, Rivka’s decision to turn toward a life of observance may have been spurred on by the lowliness and decadence of her family. Her family’s corruption may have turned her off. When Rivka witnessed the dishonesty of her family, she decided not to following in their ways. Taking on a life of observance may have been more of a natural move for her.
Yitzchak, however, did not turn to a life of observance because he witnessed the shallowness of his family. On the contrary, Yitzchak was brought up in an extremely religious environment which added meaning and purpose to his life. But instead of just coasting along maintaining the status quo, Yitzchak worked on himself each and every day to grown to new vistas in Torah and mitzvos observance. Yitzchak would push himself to learn more and more about the mitzvos until they became like a whole new set of mitzvos that he had never done before.
The take away message of this teaching is to realize the great responsibility placed upon us to not become complacent with our current level of observance. Rather, we are being called upon to stretch ourselves even more so to the point that we all become like ba’alei teshuva with respect to how we served Hashem yesterday.
There are two more approaches which could be added in order to describe how Yitzchak was even greater than Rivka, which led to the acceptance of his tefillos.
When a person’s father is an accomplished Rav, there is a certain amount of pressure which is placed upon the child. There is some kind of expectation that the son should grow up to be a Rav just like his father is. Sometimes, the child does not even have his own identity. Rather, he is referred to as, “The Rabbi’s son.”
For such a child, this a goal may seem insurmountable. Such a child may think to himself that he will never be able to fill his father’s shoes. As a result, such a child may try to make a name for himself in other ways, some of which are not commendable.
Although Yitzchak was the son of the great Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak “went for the gold” and strove to be a great tzaddik like his father was. By doing so, Yitzchak had to rise above the pressure and fight against thoughts which may have told him that he would never be as great as Avraham.
Rivka, on the other hand, had no such pressure. Her father was the head of the mafia. There was no pressure on Rivka to become righteous because nobody expected her to amount to anything of significance. Rivka did not suffer from thoughts that told her that she could never be as great as her parents because it was obvious that she could become better than them. Therefore, it was easier for Rivka to become a tzaddeikes.
In this way, Yitzchak was greater than Rivka. This is why Hashem accepted specifically Yitzchak’s prayers.
The message for us is that no matter what type of home we come from, and no matter what type of family we have, we can all improve upon ourselves and become spiritually successful.
One final approach, for now, which demonstrates how Yitzchak was even greater than Rivka is that when a person is the child of a great Rabbi, the easy path for the child would be to follow his father’s derech (way) in Avodas Hashem (service to God).
Yitzchak, however, did not take the easy path. Yitzchak did not copy his father’s derech. Yitzchak did not allow himself to become the product of a cookie cutter. Rather, Yitzchak chose the more difficult path and forged his own way to connect with God. In this way, Yitzchak expressed his own individuality.
Rivka, however, did not have this challenge because it was obvious to her that she had to forge a new path if she wanted to live a life filled with meaning and purpose. Any path she would have taken would have been be sufficient.
Since Yitzchak’s path was more difficult than Rivka’s, Hashem accepted specifically Yitzchak’s prayers because they were on an even higher level than Rivka’s.
The lesson for us is that although we must follow tradition, we must also search for ways to express our individuality in Avodas Hashem. Forging a “new” path in serving God must exist within the framework of Torah and Halacha (Jewish law), but we must try to personalize our approach to God. Remember, there is enough flexibility within the framework of Torah and Halacha for us to express individuality.