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Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: Something old is more difficult than something new
Despite the fact that Rivka was the daughter and sister of wicked men, and she grew up in a place full of wicked people, she did not learn from their ways. One cannot compare the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person (Jacob) with the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person (Rivka). G'd chose the Prophet Obadiah to prophesize about Esau. "Something old is more difficult than something new." By expressing the name of G'd in connection with each of our Patriarchs, we emphasize that each one reached their belief in G'd through their personal understanding.
By expressing that G'd is our G'd we show that our relationship with G'd is based on our own personal conviction of the truth of G'd. Despite the fact that the benefactor did a lot more for the child than for the captive, nevertheless the captive appreciates much more what was done for him than the child who was taken care of from infancy. There is a special place designated for Ba'alei Teshuva in the World to Come. The prayers of someone born into a family of righteous people who continue to grow in their own service are answered first.
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion it says: (Bereishis 25:20) "And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rivka, the daughter of Besuel, the Arami, from Padan Arom, the sister of Lavan the Arami, as a wife." Rashi asks why it is necessary for the Torah to write that she is the daughter of Besuel, the sister of Lavan from Padam Arom? That was already described in great detail in last week's portion. Rashi answers that this comes to praise Rivka that although she was the daughter and sister of wicked men, and she grew up in a place full of wicked people, she was not affected and did not learn from their ways.
Child of righteous parents
In the next verse it says, "And Isaac prayed strongly to G'd opposite his wife as she was barren and G'd answered his prayer and Rivka his wife became pregnant." Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Yevamos 64a) that the meaning of "opposite his wife" is that just as Isaac was praying to G'd so was Rivka pouring out her heart in prayer. Rashi continues to point out that it says that G'd answered "his prayer". This comes to teach us, says Rashi, that one cannot compare the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person (Jacob) with the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person (Rivka). It seems strange that the prayer of a righteous person who grew up with righteous parents should be preferred, especially as the Torah itself just praised Rivka highly for her righteousness despite the fact that she came from a wicked background.
Similarly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) discusses why G'd chose the Prophet Obadiah to prophesize about Esau rather than any of the other prophets. Says the Talmud, "Let Obadiah who lived with two wicked people (the Royal couple, Ahab and Isabella) and did not learn from their deeds come and prophesize regarding Esau the wicked who lived with two righteous people (Isaac and Rivka) and did not learn from their deeds." Again we see that the Torah appreciates the greatness of a person who lives in an environment of wrongdoers and nevertheless elevates himself to do what is right. So why should Isaac's prayer be preferred over the prayer of Rivka?
The Alter of Kelm, R' Simcha Zisel Ziv, explains this with another quotation from our sages. The Talmud (Yuma 29a) teaches: "Something old is more difficult than something new." It is more exciting and interesting to study something that has never been learned before than reviewing old material. Says R' Simcha Zisel, this does not just apply to one's study and learning, it also applies in one's service of G'd. When Abraham came to the realization that the order of the universe clearly shows that there must be a Creator, he investigated it with an excitement to prove the truth and to take on the world of idol worshippers. His son, Isaac, on the other hand, grew up in a house of G'd fearing people. He already had everything prepared for him. He could have been complacent and merely followed in the footsteps of his father, without developing his own uniqueness in his service of G'd. However, he understood that every individual has his own unique purpose and must serve G'd with his special character and abilities, not just continue and copy what he has seen performed by earlier generations.
G'd of each Patriarch
With this insight we can understand why in the beginning of the Shemona Esrei we refer to G'd as the G'd of Abraham, the G'd of Isaac and the G'd of Jacob. As the commentaries explain, a person should not believe in G'd as a tradition transmitted from earlier generations, but rather out of personal conviction and understanding through the study of Torah and its literature. If we said, the G'd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we might think that Isaac and Jacob followed blindly in the footsteps of the first Patriarch, Abraham. By expressing the name of G'd in connection with each of our Patriarchs, we emphasize that each one reached their belief in G'd through their own personal understanding.
This is also why we say "our G'd and the G'd of our fathers". It seems to be in the wrong order. Would it not be more appropriate to first refer to G'd as "G'd of our fathers" and then as "our G'd". However, by expressing first that G'd is our G'd, we show that our relationship to G'd is not only because our parents and grandparents believed in Him, but rather that we have our own conviction of the truth of G'd and therefore develop our own personal relationship with G'd.
The child and the captive
We can gain a further insight to understand the difficulty of someone who grew up in an observant, G'd-fearing home, with a quotation from Duties of the Heart. In the Introduction to the Gate of Investigation, the author Rabbeinu Bechayey asks why do people in general not appreciate all the goodness G'd bestows upon them? One of the reasons, he says, is that when a child is born its mind is not developed to understand and appreciate any part of the goodness bestowed upon the child. As the child grows, it becomes accustomed to everything around it and considers all the blessings of life as being an integral part of life. As a result, when the child eventually develops its mind it does not even notice that there is anything to appreciate and be thankful for. Even in adulthood, this person does not think twice about how the ability to function including being able to eat and digest food, to breathe freely, to move around, is anything one needs to thank for. This is all taken for granted.
The found Infant
Says Rabbeinu Bechayey, this is comparable to an abandoned infant found by a kind person who takes pity on the child and takes him into his home, brings him up, feeds him, clothes him, and gives him whatever he needs. The generous benefactor later hears about a person taken captive by his enemy who afflicts him in every possible way. This kind person undertakes to free the victim and brings him to his home and looks after him. Despite the fact that this benefactor did a lot more for the child than for the captive, nevertheless the captive appreciates much more what was done for him than the child who was taken care of from infancy. It is self-understood that an adult who experiences any benevolent action will appreciate it much more than the child that got accustomed to the abundance of kindness of his benefactor. Even when the child grows up, he will never appreciate the kindness as much as the person who received much less kindness as an adult.
In the same way, it takes a lot more effort for the one who grew up in an observant home to continue to grow in his service of G'd. On the other hand, the Ba'al Teshuva who at a mature age starts serving G'd and observing His commandments will appreciate in a short time the privilege and beauty of the observance of the commandments. Each one has their own challenge. And as the late starter gets accustomed to fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, this person will in some measure have the new challenge of keeping up the excitement and enthusiasm of the observance to a similar degree of the one who was brought up in an observant environment. Our sages have taught that there is a special place for the Ba'alei Teshuva. The Zohar (Bereishis 39a) explains this to mean that there is a special place designated for true Ba'alei Teshuva in the World to Come where even the completely righteous cannot enter.
Rivka became one of our Matriarchs, despite her background coming from a society of wicked people. No doubt she had very special merits and with her keen insight, she was able to guide her righteous son Jacob and recognize Esau for who he really was. On the other hand, our Patriarch Isaac managed to grow in his own service of G'd rather than just continuing in the footsteps of his great father Abraham. When these two giants both entreated G'd with their prayers, our sages teach us that Isaac's prayer was the one that was answered.
Throughout the generations the Jewish people have been blessed with great leaders and great people. Some of these leaders came with the forte of having been brought up as G'd-fearing people. Others came to their high level of observance on their own. Only G'd Himself can decide in every situation whose merits are greater.
Whenever Jews are in need of help and salvation it is customary to go to a sage, a righteous person who excels in the service of G'd. This is based on the lesson of this week's portion that the prayers of people born into a righteous family who continue to grow in their own service of G'd, their prayers are at a higher level and more likely to be answered.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network