Toldos - Old and Improved
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The Parsha begins with Yitzchak and Rivkah davening for children. The verse
(25:21) states, "And G-d listened to him (Yitzchak)." Rashi references the
Talmud in Yibamos that explains why G-d listened more to Yitzchak than
Rivkah. "You can not compare the prayers of a Tzadik (a righteous person)
the son of a Tzadik to the prayers of a Tzadik the son of a Rasha (evil
person)." Yitzchak was a Tzadik the son of Avraham the Tzadik. Rivkah was a
Tzadaikes the daughter of Lavan the Rasha.
All the commentaries question this Talmudic passage. It would seem that a
person who rose above his negative and evil environment to become truly
righteous should be on a more lofty level than a person who was raised in
an environment supportive of righteousness. Why than were Yitzchak's
prayers more effective than Rivkah's prayers?
An obvious explanation is the nature of Tefilah (prayer) and its
relationship to Zechus Avos - merits of our forefathers. Tefilah should be
a moment when the human subjugates himself to G-d. It is a time when the
petitioner should feel completely dependent and in need of G-d's
intervention. It should be a time when the individual recognizes the
futility of his own limited resources. We should not even feel that we have
the "right" to approach G-d on our own merits. Instead, we approach G-d as
an "Ani Bapesach - a beggar in the doorway" asking for G-d's favors without
rights or claims. Therefore, no matter how great the Tzadik might be he
cannot approach G-d on his own merits but must depend upon the merits of
his forefathers. Yitzchak had such merits whereas Rivkah, although a truly
righteous person, did not have the added merits of righteous parents.
However, I would like to share with you another approach to the Talmudic
passage, "You can not compare the prayers of a Tzadik the son of a Tzadik
to the prayers of a Tzadik the son of a Rasha." The Sefer Lekach Tov
references the insights of Rav Simcha Zisel of Kelem, the Alter from Kelem.
The Talmud in Yoma 29a states, "Something old is more difficult than
something new." The Alter from Kelem explains that newness is its own
(The following is a loose translation and elaboration of the Alter's words.)
"When a person begins to study a new topic he realizes that he is studying
information that he does not yet know. Therefore, he is motivated to use
every effort at his disposal to understand the new material and attain
clarity and mastery of the subject.
However, if a person is reviewing something that he has already studied, he
tends to approach the review with the belief that he has already mastered
the subject. Therefore, he will be satisfied with a cursory analysis of the
topic, one that only confirms his original belief of his own mastery of the
material rather than providing deeper insight and analysis.
The individual who is able to overcome this natural tendency of seeking
confirmation when reviewing, rather than expending the time and energy in
search of greater meaning and profundity, is a far stronger and disciplined
person than the one motivated by novelty and newness.
We can now understand the Talmudic passage, "You can not compare the
prayers of a Tzadik the son of a Tzadik to the prayers of a Tzadik the son
of a Rasha." Avraham Avinu was born into a world of mistaken beliefs. Once
he realized that idol worship was false he was motivated to expend every
effort in search of the truth. Therefore, Avraham was motivated by the
excitement of newness, novelty, and discovery. He was a true trailblazer.
However, Yitzchak was born into a world where the path toward truth had
already been paved by Avraham and Sarah's innovative and monumental
Having been raised in the home of his parents, Yitzchak should have taken
belief in G-d and the performance of His commandments "for granted." For
Yitzchak it should have been "old" not "new." However, Yitzchak's approach
was to do the unexpected. He lived every day as if he was discovering anew
the truth of G-d. Yitzchak worshiped G-d with the same excitement of
discovery and novelty as if he had been raised in a home and environment of
idol worship and falsehood and was discovering truth for the first time.
Therefore, as great as Rivkah was for escaping the falsehoods of her home
and upbringing, Yitzchak was even greater. He accomplished what the Talmud
in Yoma states, "Something old is more difficult than something new.
Therefore, G-d listened to the prayers of Yitzchak, more so than the
prayers of Rivkah."
There are a number of other applications to the Alter's insights. First of
all, novelty and newness are more easily remembered. I pointed out to my
students that almost everyone who has ever studied Talmud can recall the
first Mishnah (opening paragraph) of a tractate. However, see if they can
remember the Talmud's first question on that same Mishnah. The difference
is that the first Mishnah was studied the first few days of the class when
the topic was new and the motivation fresh. Unfortunately, we soon began to
take class, teacher, and material for granted and soon enough our
recollection of the material disappeared along with our excitement and
Secondly, the principle of "The Motivation of the Novel and The New" is
important in all healthy relationships. Almost all couples reach a stage
where they mourn the loss of newness and excitement in their relationship.
The first stages of courtship and marriage were filled with excitement,
discovery, creativity, and energy. However, soon enough life became routine
and we began to take each other for granted. Good relationships have
built-in moments of renewal and discovery. (Such as the laws of Family
Purity) However, it demands effort and time. It does not happen by itself.
The best marriages recognize routine but do not take the routine for granted.
Our religious lives would certainly be impacted by the principle of "The
Motivation of the Novel and The New." How many of us approach Tefilah
(prayer) seeking spiritual newness, novelty, and discovery. Imagine what
our lives would be like if we arose every morning with vigor anticipating a
"new relationship" with G-d?" We say every morning in our davening.
"Enlighten Tzion with a new light." "At the shores of the sea the Redeemed
praised You with a new song…" Instead, we pray by rote, seldom considering
the uniqueness of the opportunity to converse with G-d, except when beset
by pain and difficulties.
Yitzchak's identifying characteristic was Gevurah - strength and
discipline. He rose above the physical limits of routine and standard to
approach G-d with the freshness and purity of the young and innocent. His
daily service was a never-ending adventure of discovery and excitement. He
took neither his G-d nor his own accomplishments for granted. He always
sought greater profundity and perfection in his exploration of G-d's world.
Rivkah was equal to Yitzchak in her love of G-d and performance of His
Mitzvos. However, her relationship started with the novelty of being a
trailblazer. Like Avraham and Sarah, she rose above her environment and
courageously embraced new values and beliefs. As the verse in last week's
Parsha says, (25:67) "And he brought her into the tent of his mother...and
was comforted for the loss of his mother."
However, Rivkah would always be a Baalas Teshuva (a returnee to religion
and tradition). She would understandably always see herself in contrast to
her origins. She would never have to confront the routine and challenge of
being "frum (religious) from birth." Therefore, she did not have to
struggle, as Yitzchak did, to find motivation and avoid taking her
relationship with G-d for granted. Therefore, her Tefilos, as powerful as
they were, did not match the exalted newness of Yitzchak's prayers.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.