In the beginning of this week’s Parsha we are told that Yitzchak and Rivka were not able to have a child, and through their tefillos Rivka concieved.
“Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rivka conceived.” (Bereishis, 25:21)
Rashi comments on the language of the Torah, “Hashem allowed Himself to be entreated by him…” this implies by him but not by her. Rashi cites the Talmud (Yevamos 64A) that explains, the prayer of a righteous person who descends from wicked ancestors cannot be compare to the prayer of a righteous person with righteous ancestors. Therefore, Yitzchak’s prayers were answered, but not Rivka’s.
This statement of our Sages seems to be surprising because it is contrary to other statements. The Talmud (Mes Berachos) says that even the completely righteous cannot stand in the place of the ba’al teshuva, he who has repented. Furthermore, the previous pasuk in this week’s parsha itself makes this point! Rivka is described as the daughter of Besuel, sister of Lavan, from Padan Aram. Rashi cites the Midrash Rabba which asks why these details are included, if we already know this information from the previous parsha? The Midrash answers that the Torah intentionally repeats it hear to praise Rivka, that she was the daughter of a wicked father, sister of a wicked brother, raised in a wicked city, and yet she did not learn from their ways.
So who is greater the BT, ba’al teshuva, or FFB, frum from birth?
In my years in Baltimore I had the privilege of hearing a Drasha from Rabbi Yosef Shraga Berger Shlit”a in which he shared an idea from the Alter of Kelem to address this question. The Alter explained that there is no question, that the ba’al teshuva, the individual who is not raised with a religious background has a uniquely special status, because he was able to overcome the many negative influences of his past. However, the righteous person who comes from a righteous family also has a unique challenge. The ba’al teshuva has a certain drive to change, to take on a religious lifestyle, that drive motivates him to make those changes.
However, a religious person who is born into a religious family has a unique challenge of his own, the challenge of complacency. It is all too easy for the FFB to spend his or her religious life coasting along, continuing what he’s used to with no tangible change. Yitzchak, was raised in Avraham and Sarah’s home, all he had to do was continue on as is. Yet, he was able to overcome the challenge of complacency. He wasn’t satisfied with what he was born into, he wanted more. Indeed, we find that Yitzchak did not only continue his father’s legacy, but he also developed his own midah of gevurah, strength.
Whether BT or FFB, we can all relate to this challenge at some point in life. Regardless of our upbringing and background, at some point we reach our religious comfort zone. Where we feel that we are doing enough, and naturally we begin to coast along without significant change. This is a great challenge, after already settling into a fully observant lifestyle, what more is there to do? But in Torah-Judaism there is always more to be done.
The struggles may be more subtle, but they are nonetheless important. We may no longer struggle to keep Shabbos, keep Kosher, or cover our hair. Our challenge in Shabbos observance may lie in how we spend our time on a long Shabbos afternoon, do we stick to Shabbos-appropriate activities, do we dress and conduct ourselves in a way that shows honor to Shabbos. Our struggle in keeping kosher, is no longer about only buying strictly kosher food, it is about always calling the Rabbi when things go wrong in the kitchen. Our struggle is no longer about covering our hair, it’s about dressing modestly, and avoiding clothing that draws attention to ourselves.
Our job is to follow in the ways of Yitzchak Avinu, and to never become complacent, to never stop growing. Even if we are born into religiosity, or have been religious for a long time, we must constantly look for new ways to serve Hashem and come closer to Him.