In parshas Toldos Yitzchok and Rivka desperately want a child. I don’t know what it is about our fore-parents, but Hashem really gives them a hard time about having kids. So what do they do? Rivka and Yizchok both pray.
And Yizchok prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rivka his wife conceived. (Bereishis 25:21)
What does opposite his wife mean? According to Rashi, “This one (Yitzchok) was standing in this corner and praying, and that one (Rivka) was standing in that corner and praying.” Wow. So they were just standing in the corner all day praying. And then God accepts his prayer? Rashi elucidates once again, “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, [He accepted] his prayer and not hers.”
Whoa Rashi, that is a bold statement. But I guess when you were raised by an emmunah master like Avraham, it makes sense. Except there’s one notable quote from the Talmud which complicates things.
Rabbi Abahu says in the place where a baal teshuvah stands even the completely righteous cannot. (Brachos 34b)
It seems to be a contradiction. A baal teshevah, someone who has mastered their yetzer hara and has come back into the fold (in modern times we use the term to refer to someone who has gone from a secular life style to an observant one), is at a height a tzadik can’t possibly reach. Rivka clearly fits into the category of baal teshuvah, her prayers should be untouchable! But Yitzchok gets answered. Why so?
The Dark Knight Enlightens
Let’s take the train out of Cannan Land to the grungy metropolis of Gotham City. I’m a huge fan of Batman. Well the movies… well… the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Not so hot on Batfleck. Anywhoo, there’s a moment in the The Dark Knight Rises which puts the tzadik vs baal teshuvah issue into perspective.
If you’re not familiar with The Dark Knight trilogy, it’s a gritty realistic(ish) reimagining of the Batman franchise that started with Batman Begins in 2005. After tragically losing his parents as a child, then wrestling with that trauma through adolescence, Bruce Wayne goes soul searching for several years. His wandering leads him to a cult/secret order known as the League of Shadows. There he trains with ninjas, Liam Neeson, and psychedelic fear flowers until he learns the skills to become the ultimate fighting master and eventually Batman.
Flash forward two movies to the Dark Knight Rises. After having defeated the League of Shadows, Bruce Wayne is targeted by a mysterious mercenary known as Bane. Bane manages to steal all of Bruce’s billions and lures him into a 1 on 1 fight. It’s there that Bane reveals that he was a member of the League of Shadows and has now rebuilt the League crowning himself the new leader. It’s during this fight that the connection to the parsha spoke to me. I’ve included the clip below. Bane claims his advantage comes from the fact that where Bruce was “adopted by the darkness” he grew up in it.
It’s no surprise that any skill or trait a person grows up with they are going to develop a natural proficiency for (at least to some degree). Language, piano, dance, etc. And as we get older, our ability to learn news skills gets more difficult. Batman obviously has a talent for fighting and stealth (or whatever Bane is actually referring to when he says ‘darkness’). But compared to Bane who grew up in it, there’s no contest. He just has a more natural proficiency.
And that’s what were talking about here in the case of Yitzchok and Rivka. As a baal teshuvah, I know the temptation of a cheese burger, of dating non-shomer negia, of watching college football on a Saturday. And because I have the daas (body knowledge) of those temptations, to turn away from them and do the right thing yields more merit than a tzadik who has never experienced them themselves. That’s why a tzadik can’t stand in the place of a baal teshuvah.
But the prayers of a tzadik is a different story. Someone who grew up in the lifestyle, who knows the prayers inside and out, who can study all the commentaries in their original language (whether it’s Hebrew, Yiddish, or Aramaic) with a whole life time of familiarity, and has hardly ever sinned in their life? That person’s prayers would have a potency and a weight a baal teshuvah will never have. That’s why Hashem answers Yizchok’s prayers.
Holy Chazzan’s Repetition, Batman!
You might find that notion deflating. Why should Rivka have bothered praying to God at all? She should have just had Yitzchok pray for her. But just because your prayers don’t have the weight of another person doesn’t mean they won’t be answered. Hashem doesn’t run the world in such a simple way. It doesn’t always come down to a mathematical calculation of X number of mitzvahs — Y number of averiahs = favorable/unfavorable outcome. But even if it were, prayer isn’t just about Hashem fulfilling your desires. It’s about understanding yourself, growth, taking time out of your life for what’s important and ultimately building a relationship with God. And just because you’re not a tzadik today, doesn’t mean you won’t be one day.