In this week’s parsha, we read how Isaac married Rebecca. “And Isaac entreated the L-rd opposite [`lenochach’] his wife, because she was barren; and the L-rd let Himself be entreated by him, and Rebecca his wife conceived” (Gen. 25:21).
Rashi explains “lenochach” by saying that Isaac and Rebecca prayed in opposite corners of the room. We can imagine how they prayed for hours, intently, for a child, Issac in one corner and Rebecca in the other, until G-d answered their prayer. Why then does it say: “the L-rd let himself be entreated by him [Isaac]”? What was wrong with Rebecca’s prayers? Rashi explains this again, by saying: “By him, and not by her, since the prayers of a tzaddik (righteous person) who is the son of a rasha (wicked person) cannot be compared to the prayers of a tzaddik who is the son of a tzaddik.” (Isaac’s father, Abraham, was clearly a tzaddik, and Rebecca’s father, Bethuel, is considered here to be a rasha.) This seems a little shocking, and unfair to Rebecca. Why should her prayers be ignored because of her father?
Furthermore, this Rashi seems to be contradicted by a well-known Gemara, which says that in the place of a baal teshuva (someone who “returns” to Judaism), not even a completely righteous person can stand. The argument for this is that it is easy enough to be observant if one grows up in an observant environment, but a baal teshuva, who tries to become observant later in life, is usually forced to make changes in his or her lifestyle and circle of friends, which can be quite difficult. How can this be reconciled with Rashi’s statement?
The answer, I think, is quite simple: it is NOT easier for someone who is “frum from birth” to be a tzaddik than it is for a baal teshuva! A baal teshuva, whatever his difficulties may be, has an enthusiasm for an exciting new way of life, new experiences, new friends, which carries him through. On the other hand, it may be difficult for someone who has grown up in an observant environment to maintain an enthusiasm for praying three times daily, for example. Even though he may be the son of a tzaddik, who may be the son of another tzaddik, and so on, right back to the Baal Shem Tov or the Vilna Gaon (or perhaps because of that!) he may become blasé about performing mitzvos.
When some important task is new and fresh for us, we perform it meticulously. After we have grown used to it, we tend to find short cuts, and cut corners, in ways that may be detrimental to our performance.
Someone spent a couple of years studying at the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem. When it was time for him to return to America, he had a conversation with the Brisker Rav, who asked him: “Tell me how you have benefited from your stay here.” “It’s wonderful!” he answered. “When I first came here, it took me a whole day to study a page of Gemara. Now I can knock it off in half an hour!” “Then you should stay another couple of years!” replied the Brisker Rav. “If it took you a day to study a page of Gemara when you came here, it should now take you a week!” The man had not realized that greater familiarity with the Gemara should lead to increased depths of study, which should take a longer, not a shorter, time.
We all know how people, as they become increasingly familiar with the prayers, tend to say them more quickly, until they can rattle them off at high speed. Yet this does not necessarily mean an increased amount of devotion or concentration. (It may mean the opposite!)
A man who wanted to enter a famous yeshiva in Jerusalem was interviewed by the Rosh Yeshiva. “Tell me,” the Rosh Yeshiva asked him, “are you a baal teshuva?” “No!” he replied firmly. “Why not?” asked the Rosh Yeshiva.
Isaac’s prayers were answered, not BECAUSE he was the son of a tzaddik, but because HE was a tzaddik, EVEN THOUGH he was the son of a tzaddik!
It is my wish that as we accustom ourselves towards greater Torah observance, we do not become blasé about Jewish values, but maintain our enthusiasm and our excitement for these, so that, like Isaac, we will earn the merit of having our prayers answered.