“And Yitzchak prayed intensely opposite his wife because she was barren. And Hashem listened to him, and Rivkah became pregnant.” – Bereishis 25:21
The Imahos were all barren. According to a midrash, it wasn’t that they were simply incapable of having children, they lacked the very organs necessary to conceive. Knowing this, Yitzchak and Rivkah davened for a miracle. They each stood in their opposite corners, imploring, entreating, and begging Hashem to allow them to have a child. After twenty years of their pleading, Hashem granted the miracle – Rivkah became pregnant.
However, the pasuk says Hashem listened to his prayers. Rashi makes the observation that it was to Yitzchak’s prayers that Hashem listened, not Rivkah’s. Rashi explains that this is because Yitzchak was the son of a tzaddik, whereas Rivkah was the daughter of a rasha. Since there is no comparison between the prayers of a tzaddik who is the child of tzaddik to the prayers of a tzaddik who is the child of a rasha, Hashem listened to his prayers rather than to hers.
But wasn’t Rivkah greater because she overcame her upbringing? The problem with this Rashi is we know a person isn’t judged according to where he is now but to where he came from. The fact that Rivkah came from “lowly stock” and yet managed to overcome her upbringing is to her credit – she is even greater because of it.
In fact, just one pasuk earlier we are told Rivkah was the daughter of Besuel, the sister of Lavan, and from a city of devious people. Rashi explains that the Torah repeats her lineage there to show to us how great she was: “Even though her father was wicked, even though her brother was wicked, and even though she came from a town of wicked people, she was righteous.”
Precisely because she came from the house of wicked people and wasn’t negatively influenced, she was considered greater than if she had been born into a house of holy people. Yet here we see that because she came from the house of wicked people, her prayers weren’t accepted. This seems to be a direct contradiction.
Who I Am Vs. Who My Father Is
The answer to this seeming inconsistency is that there are two systems involved in weighing a person’s merits. The first system is based on the individual: Who am I and what have I accomplished in this world? Based on where I started, based on the talents and abilities given to me, how far did I go? How much did I change? That is the system used to measure me when I leave this earth. Who am I now, compared to who I was when I started?
But there is a second system that comes into play when a person stands in front of Hashem during davening.
The following parable helps us understand this system. A loyal friend of the king has a son who turned to bad ways. When petitioning the king to have mercy, he doesn’t present his case based on the merit of his son – he asks the king to remember who he, the father, is. He asks the king to remember all the years of loyal service he provided, to ignore the faults of his son, and to remember the love and devotion he has showered on the king.
So, too, when the son of a tzaddik comes in front of Hashem, it may well be that his merit alone isn’t sufficient to change the judgment. Based on his merit alone, he may not deserve whatever it is he is requesting. But the merit of his father who stands for him carries him far beyond his own arguments.
When Rivkah stood in front of Hashem, she was a very holy woman – but as great as she was, her merit alone was not sufficient to bring forth the type of miracle needed. When Yitzchak stood in front of Hashem, he was effectively twice as tall as Rivka because his own merit and the merit of his father were working for him. As noted above, it may well be that Rivkah herself was greater because she had overcome the obstacles of her father’s house, but in terms of asking mercy from Hashem, she stood alone. Therefore, Hashem listened to Yitzchak’s prayer, not to Rivkah’s.