The parasha opens with a description of Yitzchak and his barren wife Rivka beseeching Hashem to be granted a child. The Torah tells us that Hashem indeed answers the prayers but uses an interesting choice of words to illustrate this:
“VaYeAter Lo Hashem VaTahar Rivka Ishto” – ” And Hashem was entreated by him (Yitzchak) and Rivka his wife conceived. “ ( Bereishit, 25:21)
Rashi makes note that it says that Hashem was entreated by Yitzchak’s prayers saying “Lo” (his) and not “la” (her) – Rivka’s prayers. What was so special about Yitzchak’s prayers over his wife’s? Rashi brings the Gemara which explains “SheEin Domeh Tefillat Tzadik ben Tzadik liTefilat Tzadik ben Rasha” – ” for the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person is not comparable to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person. ” In other words the prayers of Rivka, a righteous person who was the child of a wicked person, are not comparable to that of the righteous Yitzchak who was the son of Avraham the righteous.
This principle raises a number of questions. Surely it should be the other way around? Surely the prayers of the one who grew up without prayer, who grew up without positive direction and influence, and yet nevertheless went out on their own to become righteous, surely their prayers warrant a unique Divine grace over the prayers of one who has been fed righteousness from a young age? After all, we are taught in the mishna in Avot that “Lefum Tzaara Agra” – in accordance with the effort is the reward! In accordance with the pain is the gain! Surely the one who comes from nothing and yet becomes a something through their own effort packs a weightier punch in prayer than one who was born into greatness with little effort? Furthermore, couldn’t the Ben Tzadik’s prayer be potentially riddled with monotony and rote-like robotic routine after having ‘inherited’ such a path from a young age?
A wonderful explanation of this Rashi is brought down in the Michtav MeEliyahu where Rav Dessler quotes a profound insight of the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv. To understand this principle he notes that all the Avot carved out their own unique pathway in avodat Hashem which they excelled in and taught to the world. We say in our Amida “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Yaakov” , spelling out each of the forefathers to show that each one revealed and exemplified a unique facet of Hashem’s light in this world, a light that we can access and learn from. Avraham exemplified the Divine trait of Chesed/Loving Kindness, Yitzchak the trait of Gevura/Discipline and Restraint and Yaakov the trait of Emet. But this carving out of one’s own unique path in Avodat Hashem is not to be taken for granted. The Alter quotes the gemara in Yoma (29b) that “ Atikta Kashya MiChadeta” – “Old is more of a challenge than new” and explains that when something is fresh and different it is easy to feel excited and passionate. But when something is the ‘same old – same old’ that I have been doing since I was a young child, then to find passion becomes a greater challenge. To be your own unique Tzadik despite being a ben Tzadik, is certainly a great task, and one that Yitzchak excelled in.
Yitzchak was not just a “ben Tzadik” – the son of a righteous person – he was a Tzadik ben Tzadik! He attained his own righteousness, NOT because of his upbringing, but despite it! He took what he received and then made it his own, through his own hard work, determination, energy and effort. This is perhaps one way to understand another element of our parasha: Yitzchak as the master well digger. He re-digs the wells that Avraham had dug while also digging his own wells. He receives and then paves his own path excavating his own channel to Hashem. Yet this is not an easy task. Many ‘ben tzadiks’ out there may fall prey to rote, merely passively fitting the mold that was carved out for them or sometimes, tragically, seeking their individuality by trying to dig for foreign unholy waters. What is so impressive about the Tzadik ben Tzadik is that despite being a ben Tzadik he carved out his own path of righteousness to become a tzadik on his own. That is worthy of greater praise even than one who is born into lowly roots and nevertheless sprouts forth and blossoms into greatness. Why? Because, amazingly, it is much more difficult to rise above the regularity of a good life that you inherited than to see the light of truth in the darkness of falsehood. Monotony, in a strange way, presents a blindfold that is darker than falsehood itself.
That is a huge chidush (novel idea!). In our day, this is teaching how very difficult it is for the average person to elevate a habit that they were raised with. Take an average person who has been praying throughout elementary and then high school because ‘that is what Jews do’. He recites his prayers, goes through the motions, bobs up and down and sometimes even clenches up his face, but in truth if you ask him why he prays he may say ” because” – just ‘because’ – in modern Hebrew – ” Stam” . And if you ask him why he keeps other laws and customs of Judaism, he might similarly reply with such an uninspired hesitant answer “that’s just what I’ve always done – stam”. Likewise, if you asked the average person about any habits or ways of doing things that they acquired from their upbringing, they may also respond with an ambivalent “stam”. This is because most people don’t live the life they choose, they live the life that ‘happens’ to them.
To be a stam person, or a stam Jew doesn’t explain why we were chosen to be in this world. If you are here, you are an individual, with a unique path and purpose – there is no ‘stam’ at all to who you are and who you are to be. Torah provides the lenses of truth and goodness – but we are to shine our uniqueness through those lenses to bring G-dly light to the world and never ever allow ourselves to simply be ‘Stam’ people. Yitzchak wasn’t stam. He forged his own path, and that is not something to be taken lightly.
May we all be blessed to find our unique passionate fervor in Avodat Hashem, to excavate new waters of life each day and bring fresh G-dly light to our life and to the life of those around us.