This weeks parsha is focused entirely on the birth and growth of Yaakov and Esav, as the two brothers, and ultimately fathers of nations, vie for dominance over each other. The beginning of the parsha records how Yitzchak and Rivka, childless and incapable of bearing children, desperately cry out to G-d for children. The Torah relates how each stood in one room facing the other as they prayed. The verse continues and says that G-d answered the prayers of Yitzchak (but not Rivka). Shortly afterwards Rivka gave birth to Yaakov and Esav. The immediate question raised by this verse is – we know that both Yitzchak and Rivka prayed with the same devotion and sincerity and that both were truly righteous individuals – why were Yitzchak’s prayers answered and not those of Rivka? ...

The answer provided seems to magnify the problem – G-d views the prayers of a righteous person with a family background to match, Yitzchak, more favourably than someone, whom despite their personal strengths, comes from a family lacking those strengths, Rivka.

But surely each person can only be viewed in light of their own strengths and weaknesses? How can it be just for Rivka to be ignored by virtue of her family background? Likewise, what sort of truly just system gives special privileges to those with the right hereditary links? Further, logic would seem to dictate that Rivka, by finding truth and morality against all the odds, had surely grown more to reach her level of spirituality than Yitzchak who, great as he was, was born into spiritual ‘wealth’ If anyone’s prayers deserved special attention, surely it was those of Rivka? It is certainly true that Rivka’s spiritual growth in a hostile environment against all the odds was a major achievement. The verses repeatedly refer to Rivka’s birthplace and genealogy, despite the fact that it is already known, specifically in order to point this out. She, like Avraham, provided an invaluable lesson about the possibility and importance of being able to think for one’s self regardless of societal pressures and to act on the conclusions. We cannot therefore make sense of Yitchak’s prayers being answered other than by explaining that he, in and of his own right, merited this through his own actions, and somehow achieved something that signified a incomparably noteworthy achievement. What then was this achievement? Yitzchak was the son of the two most G-dly characters of the generation. Avraham and Sarah had literally brought the concept of G-d to the world. Yitzchak was the product of their marriage.

This brought with it major advantages. Yitzchak would have been sensitised to spirituality, the depth of meaning of Torah observance, how to be a giving and conscientious human being and so on, in a way that no-one else would have been, from his earliest childhood.

Yet with all these advantages came a uniquely difficult challenge – how could Yitzchak, with two such fantastic role models around him, become a true individual? The challenge to avoid simply replicating the actions of his parents without truly integrating them into his own unique personality was formidable. It would have been quite understandable had Yitzchak have gone through his whole life essentially living as a robot – doing all the ‘right’ things by rote, in a totally detached way. It was his ability to meet this challenge, to live a life as an individual – with his own unique relationship to the world around him, to mitzvos, and to G-d, that rendered him particularly special. One may reasonably ask – why is this ‘individuality’ so necessary? After all, the Torah does lay out a list of ‘laws’ which essentially define how one is to live in every facet of life. If so, living a mechanical, robotic existence is not only acceptable, but actually necessary? Where is there any room for personal self-expression and individuality? This question, though, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of halacha (Jewish law) and mitzvos generally. While it is true that Judaism is characterised by a multitude of halachas pertaining to every practical area of life, that is not supposed to define and limit self-expression. It is the framework within which to nurture and express the self. In fact, without a defined framework within which to live, we would be unable to truly find and become who we really are. Take for example the Jewish approach to marriage. Judaism defines the framework within which a marriage should exist and flourish.

A man can only have one wife and vice versa. Both are obligated to provide for the emotional and physical well-being of the other in very clear and defined ways. In the first year of the marriage there are numerous halachos ensuring husband and wife spend a major amount of time together in order to ensure they foster a strength of relationship to carry them through life together. All these ‘laws’ are, in a sense highly restrictive yet they do not restrict self-expression, they facilitate it. Ensuring that one’s relationship to Judaism is a personal and self-expressive one is clearly a challenge. There is often a major temptation just to fade into the crowd and be ‘just like everyone else’, just as in every other area of life. The fact that there is an objective and defined framework within which to live can certainly add to this possibility. And in Yitzchak’s case the fact that he had two near-perfect role models would only have accentuated that danger. But the lesson we learn from Yitzchak is one that is equally applicable to all of us – we can, and must, develop our own personal relationship to the world around us and to Jewish practice. That relationship should be reflective of our own very unique set of emotional and intellectual character traits.

This would ensure that we are true and proud bearers of Yitzchak and Rivka’s legacy. All feedback welcome: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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