Parashat Toldot deals with the life stories of Isaac and Rebekah, the second pair of the Jewish nation’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and the complicated relationship of their twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
The story begins with Isaac marrying Rebekah, and Rebekah being unable to bear children. Isaac and Rebekah pray to God for redemption and children, and God indeed hears their prayers. Rebekah gives birth to twins, whom we later get to know as Jacob and Esau.
The great biblical commentator Rashi, following the sages of the Midrash, points out the unusual description of Rebekah at the beginning of the parasha. “And Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebekah the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife.”
What is the reason for mentioning her father, her brother, and her place of origin here? Anyone who read the previous parasha knows the story of Abraham’s servant who went to Padan Aram, met Rebekah, her father Bethuel and her brother Laban, and then took her to Canaan to marry Isaac.
Why does the Torah repeat her biographical details here again?
Rashi’s answer is: “But this is to tell her praise, that she was the daughter of a wicked man and the sister of a wicked man, and her place was [inhabited by] wicked people, but she did not learn from their deeds” (Rashi on Gen. 25:20).
“But this is to tell her praise, that she was the daughter of a wicked man and the sister of a wicked man, and her place was [inhabited by] wicked people, but she did not learn from their deeds”Rashi on Genesis 25:20
Rebekah did not receive the kind of education suitable for one of the matriarchs of the Jewish nation. She was raised by idol worshipers, her brother was a well-known swindler, and the general culture that enveloped her was far from stellar. Despite this, Rebekah built and shaped her personality on her own. She did not grow up with positive traditions that she could emulate but abandoned negative ones, choosing pure values that merited her becoming one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people.
But then, in the next verse, we read Rashi again, and he seems to be expressing the opposite opinion!
As the story continues, Isaac and Rebekah pray to God. “And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.” Both Isaac and Rebekah prayed, and yet it does not say “and the Lord accepted their prayer.” It was only Isaac’s prayer that was accepted. Why?
Rashi explains: “But not hers, for the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a righteous man, does not compare to the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a wicked man. Therefore, [God] accepted] his prayer and not hers” (Rashi on Gen. 25:21).
“But not hers, for the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a righteous man, does not compare to the prayer of a righteous man, the son of a wicked man. Therefore, [God] accepted] his prayer and not hers”Rashi on Genesis 25:21
Isaac was “a righteous man, the son of a righteous man.” He was raised in the home of Abraham and Sarah, where he absorbed values of faith and holiness, righteousness and justice. Rebekah, on the other hand, was a righteous person, the daughter of a wicked man.
Only a few moments ago, she was praised for building herself up from the degenerate environment in which she was raised. And now, it seems from the words of Rashi, that there is another way of viewing this situation. It seems the person who received a quality education has an advantage over someone who got an inferior one and chose a positive path of her own volition.
But we still can’t help but wonder why.
ONE OF the leaders of the Musar movement in the yeshiva world in 19th-century Lithuania was a man whose name is not widely known today but whose influence on his students was great. I am referring to Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the head of the yeshiva in the small town of Kelm in Lithuania, where he nurtured the top spiritual leadership of Lithuanian Jewry before the Holocaust, in the spirit of the Musar movement that demanded a high level of self-awareness and deep introspection regarding one’s motivations and actions. He was known as the Alter of Kelm, and one of his students conveyed his explanation of Rashi’s commentary.
Isaac indeed was raised in the home of Abraham and Sarah and got a good quality education, but the challenge he faced was greater than that faced by Rebekah.
Isaac needed to pave his own path and not merely go on automatic pilot and follow his parents’ path – as positive as it might have been. Isaac built his internal world independently, based on the education he had acquired. Isaac did not seek to imitate his father or live a life of habit. He used the tools he was given to define himself, to make the right choices through self-awareness rather than inertia. And this, says the Alter of Kelm, is harder than making the right choice after getting a bad education.
Our ability to not merely function through inertia – to stop and give something serious, independent and honest thought – is what leads us to a life of value as we follow in the footsteps of our patriarch Isaac. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.