Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon HaKohane, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Gittel Malka bat Moshe, Alexander Leib ben Benyamin Yosef, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The beginning of our parasha focuses on Yitzchak and Rivka. Unfortunately, like Sarah and Rachel, Rivka was initially unable to conceive: “And Yitzchak prayed to Hashem opposite his wife because she was barren, and Hashem accepted his prayer, and Rivka, his wife, conceived.” (Sefer Bereishit 25:21, this and all Tanach and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach with my emendations) In his Commentary on the Torah, Rashi (1040-1105) suggests the following interpretations of “opposite his wife,” and “accepted his prayer”:
Opposite his wife: This one (Yitzchak) was standing in this corner and praying, and that one (Rivka) was standing in that corner and praying. Accepted his prayer: But not hers, for the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a righteous man (tzaddik ben tzaddik), does not compare to the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a wicked man (tzaddik ben rasha). Therefore, [Hashem accepted] his prayer and not hers.”
Rashi’s explanation of “accepted his prayer” is based on a statement of Rabbi Yitzchak in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 64a: “… their prayers were answered due to Yitzchak, because the prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is not similar (lefi sh’aino domeh) to the prayer of a tzaddik ben rasha, and Rivkah’s father was the wicked Bethuel.” (Translation, The Koren-William Davidson Talmud, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz zatzal, editor) Rabbi Yitzchak intimates that the tefilah of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is qualitatively different, and by extension, on a higher level, than that of a tzaddik ben rasha. Yet, how can this be so? Does not Dovid HaMelech state in Ashrei: “Hashem is close to all (l’chol) who call Him, to all (l’chol) who call Him in truth (b’emet). (Sefer Tehillim, 145:18) This verse clearly indicates that there is “a level playing field” when it comes to heartfelt tefilah—and everyone, no matter who they are—has an equal opportunity to draw close to the Almighty.
In his homiletic analysis of the Torah, Oheiv Yisrael, the Apter Rav (Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel zatzal, 1748-1825) focuses on this very issue:
Rashi found it quite difficult that [Hashem accepted Yitzchak’s tefilah, and not Rivka’s,] for even though the prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is not the same as that of a tzaddik ben rasha, nonetheless, the tefilah of a tzaddik ben rasha is very important in the eyes of the Holy One may He be blessed. This is the case, since [the Holy One blessed be He] answers everyone “who call Him in b’emet”—even if he is a son of an evil person. As such, why did the Holy One blessed be He refrain from answering Rivka the tzadeket? For, beyond a shadow of a doubt, did not her prayer ascend in grace before the Holy One? (This and the following translation and brackets my own)
Rav Heschel’s answer to these questions is a tour de force that illuminates the deeper meaning of Rashi’s gloss:
[The reason why Hashem accepted Yitzchak’s tefilah and not Rivka’s] is because Yitzchak’s tefilah was that of a tzaddik ben tzaddik, as such, [Rivka’s tefilah, which was] in the category of tzaddik ben rasha, was deemed relatively unimportant by comparison (lo nechshavah kol kach). In truth, however, if the only tefilah in this instance had been [Rivka’s] tzaddik ben rasha prayer, then, beyond a doubt, it would have been of singular import before Him, may He be blessed, in its acceptance, and Hashem would surely have acted in accordance with her desire and will. Therefore, it is only when you have simultaneous tefilot in the categories of tzaddik ben tzaddik and tzaddik ben rasha that the former will take precedence over the later in its acceptance by Hashem.
The Apter Rav’s response is inspiring. It assures the entire Jewish people that our tefilot will be accepted as long as we beseech the Almighty in heartfelt sincerity. As we declare three times a day in the weekday Shmoneh Esrei:
Hear our voice, Hashem our G-d, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept — with compassion and favor — our prayer, for G-d Who hears prayers and supplication are You. From before Yourself, our King, turn us not away empty-handed, for You hear the prayers of Your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears prayer. (Translation, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur)
May we all be zocheh (merit) to have our tefilot accepted and answered. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link: The Rav
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal