On a Mission

And these are the descendants of Yitzchak the son of Avraham. Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak. (Sefer Beresheit 25:19)

I. Connecting two Torah sections

The above passage introduces our parasha. It begins, “And these are the descendants of Yitzchak the son of Avraham.” Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra asks an obvious question on the wording of the passage. Why does the passage begin with the word “and”? The word “and”, in this context, generally connects the passage with previous material. What connection is made by the word “and” in our passage? He responds that the “and” is connecting the passage and the content that follows with the end of the previous parasha. How did the previous parasha end?

Parshat Chayey Sarah ended with an enumeration of the descendants of Yishmael – the son of Avraham and Hagar. The word “and” connects the story of Yaakov and Esav with the discussion of Yishmael’s descendants.[1] But what is the message of the Torah? What message is communicated by connecting the discussion of Yaakov and Esav with the enumeration of Yishmael’s descendants? Ibn Ezra does not comment on this issue.

II. Two interpretations of the connection

The “and’ that connects these two portions of the Torah can be understood in two ways. It can be creating continuity, or it can be expressing contrast. Let us consider each of these interpretations.

Avraham had two sons. Yitzchak was his son with Sarah. Esav was his son with Hagar. Both were his descendants. If the word “and” is creating continuity, then its message is that our parasha continues the discussion of Avraham’s descendants that began with the enumeration of Yishmael’s progeny.

However, we must note that the Torah treats Yishmael and Yitzchak very differently. Its discussion of Yishmael and his descendants is contained within a few passages. The Torah presents this material and does not again discuss Yishmael. A sensitive reader feels that with these few passages the Torah is dismissing Yishmael. He and his descendants do not deserve further consideration. Then, the Torah takes up Yaakov and Esav. It initiates a detailed discussion that continues to the conclusion of the Torah.

The different treatments of Yishmael’s and Yitzchak’s progenies suggest that the “and” is not expressing continuity. It is contrasting the treatments. It invites the reader to notice the brevity of its treatment of Yishmael’s descendants and compare it to the detailed narrative concerning Yitzchak and his descendants.

III. The mission of the Jewish people

Why are Yishmael and Yitzchak treated so differently? The Torah is not communicating the history of Avraham and his children. It is describing the development of his mission. Avraham re-introduced the truth of Hashem to humanity. He challenged idolatry and with Sarah created a community that served Hashem. Hashem selected Avraham and Sarah to be the progenitors of a nation that would embody the truth Avraham and Sarah embraced. However, not all their descendants were assigned this role. This nation that would embody Avraham and Sarah’s message would be created from the children of Yaakov, the son of Yitzchak. Yishmael and his descendants would not be assigned this role. The contrast between the treatment of Avraham’s two sons reflects the unique role of Yitzchak, Yaakov and the nation that they would create.

IV. Jewish pride

The Jewish people have many reasons to be proud. We have produced some of the greatest scientists and thinkers. We have made outsized contributions to the arts. The State of Israel is a vibrant democracy in a region dominated by brutal dictators and regimes. Israel is a leader in technology. Its technological breakthroughs contribute to the economic growth of every developed nation. However, the message of the Torah is that all these accomplishments do not make us special. We are unique because we embody the vision of Avraham. We must not allow all our other accomplishments to confuse us. These accomplishments are a reason for pride, but they are not the source of our uniqueness. 

Keeping Score

And Yitzchak prayed to Hashem opposite his wife for she was barren, and Hashem responded to him and Rivkah his wife conceived. (Sefer Beresheit 25:21)

I.           Hashem responded to Yitzchak

Rivkah and Yitzchak married. Years pass and Rivkah did not conceive. Yitzchak and Rivkah each prayed to Hashem.  Hashem responded and Rivkah conceived. She gave birth to twin boys – Yaakov and Esav.

The above passage describes Yitzchak and Rivkah praying and Hashem responding. The passage explains that both prayed but Hashem responded to the prayer of Yitzchak. Why did Hashem respond to Yitzchak but not to Rivkah?

Rashi comments:

“And [Hashem] responded to him and not to her. [This is because] the prayer of a righteous person who is the son of a righteous person cannot be compared to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person. Therefore, [He responded] to him and not to her.” (Rashi, Sefer Bereseheit 25:21)

Yitzchak was Avraham’s son. Both Yitzchak and his father were tzadikim – righteous individuals. Rivkah was also an intensely righteous person. Her father was Betuel. Rashi describes him as a wicked person. She was a righteous person who was the child of a wicked person. Hashem responded to the prayer of Yitzchak and not to Rivkah’s prayer because he was a tzadik – a righteous person – who was the son of a tzadik.

II. The efficacy of prayer

The premise that seems to underlie Rashi’s comments is that a prayer’s efficacy is not derived solely from its sincerity. Rashi does not suggest that Rivkah’s prayers were less intense or sincere than Yitzchak’s. The efficacy of prayer is also determined by the merit of the petitioner. In other words, both Yitzchak and Rivkah prayed sincerely, intensely, and appropriately. However, Yitzchak’s prayer was effective because it was supported by greater merit. Why was Yitzchak’s prayer supported by greater merit? He was the progeny of Avraham. His prayer was supported by his merit and the merit of his father.

III. Hashem’s relationship with the righteous

It is important to understand this idea clearly. Rashi does not mean that we earn points for our righteousness and are assigned demerits for our failings. He means that the nature of Hashem’s relationship with an individual is a function of the person’s righteousness. We do not each have the same relationship with Hashem. Hashem’s relationship with a tzadik is more intense. Hashem responded to Yitzchak’s prayer because of His relationship with Yitzchak and because of His relationship with Avraham. Rivkah was a righteous person. Rashi’s comments suggest that Hashem’s relationship with her was substantial. However, her father was wicked. Hashem did not bestow His presence or influence upon this wicked person. Therefore, Rivkah’s prayers did not have the impact of Yitzchak’s.

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:19.