Parshat Toldot תש”פ
Yitzchak and Rivkah had been married for over twenty years and had not been blessed with children. They prayed fervently for children, Yitzchak in one corner and Rivkah in the other. HaShem listened to Yitzchak’s prayers, and Rivkah became pregnant. The Torah tells us (Genesis 25:21) that HaShem responded to Yitzchak’s prayers rather than his wife’s:
“וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה’ וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ”
“And HaShem responded to him, and Rivkah his wife became pregnant.”
Why specifically Yitzchak? Rashi explains:
“וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ”: לו ולא לה שאין דומה תפלת צדיק בן צדיק לתפלת צדיק בן רשע לפיכך לו ולא לה”
“And HaShem responded to him: To him, and not to her, because the prayer of a Tzadik son of a Tzadik is incomparable to the prayer of a Tzadik son of an evil person. Therefore, it was only to him that HaShem responded.”
Yitzchak’s father Avraham was a Tzadik, a wholly righteous person, while Rivkah’s father Betuel was evil. HaShem accordingly listened to Yitzchak’s prayers.
But, should it not be the other way around? Rivkah was raised by a murderer, Betuel, who, the Midrash informs us, tried to poison Eliezer when he came to seek a wife for Yitzchak; she also had a brother, Lavan, a swindler and a thief. Yet, she emerged from that family a completely righteous girl, worthy of marrying Yitzchak Avinu. She achieved that result by strenuously going against the tide of her evil family by doing deeds of kindness, and remained on constant guard to protect herself from the influence of those terrible people.
Yitzchak, on the other hand, grew up in the house of two perfectly righteous parents, giants of kindness and good deeds, Avraham and Sarah. Angels visited them! How could Yitzchak not be a Tzadik? This being the case, shouldn’t Rivkah’s prayers have been more powerful than Yitzchak’s? After all, she had to work so much harder to become righteous than did Yitzchak!
Indeed, our Sages teach us (Talmud, Berachot 34b) that people who have repented stand in a higher place than even completely righteous people.
“דאמר רבי אבהו: מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין”
So even though Rivkah was always righteous, since she had to work harder be righteous, like the person who was evil and repented, her prayers should have been answered, and not Yitzchak’s.
A Rebbe once asked his class, “If there are five burning candles and you extinguish two, how many are left?” The class knew their teacher was not asking a simple subtraction problem of 5-2=3, so they didn’t respond. He repeated the question, “If there are five burning candles, and you extinguish two, how many are left?” When no one answered, the Rebbe told them. “Two are left. The other three burn down to nothing and disappear, but the two extinguished candles remain standing.”
“Great riddle, but what’s the point?” asked the boys. The rebbe explained. This is a metaphor for how we grow and become great people. “It is the fires that we extinguish in ourselves that remain with us and become our makeup.”
In other words, when a person has a burning desire to do something forbidden, yet he extinguishes that fire by subduing his nature and not give in to it, he has just added to himself a building block to make himself a greater person. These victories over his natural inclinations become the fabric of his essence; he has created it within himself through his fortitude and willpower. A person doesn’t grow by doing what he finds easy and comfortable. Rather, the exact opposite obtains: A person grows only via overcoming the obstacles and challenges in his way. These constant and consistent decisions to do the right thing create a strong moral constitution that grows greater with every decision.
This concept provides the information necessary to answer our difficult question.
Avraham was captivated by HaShem’s “חסד”, Chesed, loving kindness, and that HaShem created the entire universe and everything in it just to share His goodness with other creations. Avraham brought many people to recognize HaShem through modeling HaShem’s kindness to them, just for their sake with no personal benefit whatsoever.
Yitzchak, on the other hand, was enamored with HaShem’s attribute of “דיו”, Din, judgment, and chose to model that quality of HaShem.
What is so impressive about HaShem’s quality of judgment?
HaShem created Man and the entire universe around him to share His goodness with him. The place where we will enjoy that sublime reward is the world to come, the place we go when our soul leaves this world. There we will reap the reward of all the good deeds that we performed in this life. The question the Sages ask is, if HaShem created us to receive that sublime reward in the world to come, why didn’t He just put us there directly and pour on the amazing pleasure? Why put us here in this world to suffer through this life before giving us that pleasure?
The answer is that HaShem recognized that people would be very unhappy with that situation. Although the pleasure would be great, it would be bitter sweet, since it would be given to us for free. Being that our souls are from HaShem Who can only give and not receive, we are embarrassed to take something for nothing.
What would a person rather do? Walk into a restaurant and tell the proprietor, “I am starving and haven’t had a square meal in three days, can I please have a meal?” Or sit at a table, order from the menu, and pay for his meal? A person is naturally embarrassed to take something for nothing. It is not his; he doesn’t deserve it. Another example would be being honored at the PGA Annual Dinner as the golfer of the year even though you have never so much as picked up a golf club.
The idea is that HaShem wanted us to be the owners of our reward. He wanted us to deserve it by law, “דין”, because we worked for it, and, as such, it is ours and we are entitled to it.
In this world we are in a constant battle to do the right thing. Our earthy body wants one thing and our holy soul wants another. It would be so easy to give in to all of our body’s desires and just do whatever it wants us to; but, instead, we exercise our freedom to choose right over wrong. With this, we overcome our earthy desires and fulfill HaShem’s commandments to us. This choice is ours and ours alone to make, and because we have chosen to do as HaShem has commanded us, we are entitled to reward for it. Through our choices, we earn justified reward in the world to come instead of being the recipients of constant kindness that we don’t deserve or have control over.
There is yet another amazing element to this system. HaShem gave Man the ability to defy Him. Freedom of choice entails the ability to choose to go against HaShem’s will (otherwise, it is not freedom to choose). To give us ownership of our reward, HaShem relinquishes His control over us and allows us to do whatever we please, even though it is completely against HaShem’s best judgment, rules, and regulations.
There is an even greater depth to this freedom of choice that HaShem has given us. Everything in this world exists only because HaShem wants it to, every moment. If HaShem would withdraw His desire for us to continue living, we would cease to exist in less than a nanosecond.
This means that while a person volitionally rebels against HaShem, doing something that HaShem has told him not to do, HaShem nevertheless gives him life and the energy he needs to execute his evil deed. By right, HaShem could say to a person, “I’m not giving you life to use it against me!” But, because HaShem wants us to be the masters of our reward, He is ready to give us life even when we are using our G-d given resources against Him.
It is HaShem’s “self-sacrifice” so-to-speak, that so enamored Yitzchak with HaShem. He saw the great kindness of how HaShem designed the world’s entire system so that Man would deserve his payment in “דין” because he earned it, and would therefore fully enjoy his reward in the world to come. HaShem gave man so much freedom and independence just so that his reward would be perfect and not tainted with the embarrassing feeling of having received it for free.
Therefore, Yitzchak chose to model HaShem’s quality of “דין”, judgment, by doing nothing wrong, and always using his power of choice to fulfill HaShem’s will. He wanted HaShem to fulfill His wishes to reward man for his good deeds in the fullest possible way.
In choosing to model the attribute of “דין”, Yitzchak accomplished an even greater feat than did Rivkah in rising above her evil family.
Rivkah opposed her negative surroundings, resisted the negative influences, and forged a righteous path for herself, but she had no choice! What was her alternative? To be evil? No way! Yitzchak, though, could have been completely righteous by following the path of kindness that his father Avraham perfected. Instead, he chose to live his life modelling HaShem’s characteristic of “דין”, judgement. This path is the complete opposite of that of his father Avraham. The path of kindness holds no one to account for anything. It bestows kindness to the individual regardless of his actions, and this is what Avraham did; whereas the concept of “דין”, judgment, demands that one live his life according to the exact rules of HaShem without leeway or wiggle room. You get only what you deserve.
This is why HaShem listened to Yitzchak’s prayer and not to Rivkah’s.
To be a Tzadik the son of a Tzadik like Yitzchak was even harder than being a Tzadik the daughter of an evil person. Yitzchak’s creating a new path of service to HaShem that was the opposite of his father’s path, required Yitzchak to put out many more fires than Rivkah had to. This is what put Yitzchak on the level that HaShem listened to his prayers over his wife’s.
Yishmael, Yitzchak’s older brother, took Avraham’s quality of kindness to the extreme. The Torah tells us (Genesis 17:12),
“יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בו”
“His hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.”
Rashi explains this to mean that he will be a thief and will take everyone’s money. They will also steal back from him, but he will be a thief. What was his rationale? He would tell people, “Hey, give me that! You have to do kindness with me! Give that to me!” When they didn’t give it to him, he would just take it from them. This is the attribute of kindness taken to the absurd extreme.
Esav, Yitzchak’s oldest son, took Yitzchak’s quality of judgment also to the absurd extreme. He was a murderer. Whenever someone did something wrong, he would react by doing “justice” and killing him for the mistake.
This same concept answers a question in last week’s portion about Lot.
When the angels visited Sodom to destroy it, Lot went all out to host them. He not only jeopardized his family’s safety; he was even prepared to give his two daughters to the mob to save his guests.
Yet, the Midrash reveals that the reason that HaShem saved Lot from Sodom was because Lot had heard Avraham tell the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister, and he did not tell them that that she was really his wife. Since Lot had mercy on Avraham, HaShem had mercy on Lot.
This Midrash is very difficult to understand. After all that Lot went through to host the angels, HaShem saved him for not getting Avraham killed? How difficult could that have been? For that he deserved to be saved?
The answer is that we know that Lot was money-hungry. His shepherds argued with Avraham’s shepherds because his animals were grazing in other people’s pastures. When it came to splitting up, he went to Sodom because of the wealth there. The angels who destroyed Sodom had to physically take Lot by the hand and pull him out because he had difficulty leaving his money, and he was trying to gather as much as possible to take with him. Hence, not telling the Egyptians that Sarah was Avraham’s wife was a very difficult test for Lot. Were he the one to provide a beautiful wife for the king, he stood to gain a tremendous amount of money for making the match. Lot had to really struggle with himself not to spill the beans.
But welcoming guests? That was something that Lot saw and participated in since he was a youngster growing up in Avraham’s house. This was ingrained in him from his childhood; therefore, it was not difficult for him. He was trained very well.
Therefore, HaShem saved Lot for keeping his mouth shut and not for hosting the angels, since this was a strong fire that Lot had to extinguish within himself. Money was a test for Lot.
This concept is relevant to each of us as we strive to grow and become better Jews. The easy tests do not make us into great people. The difficult ones do. Passing them becomes the fabric of who we are.