Of all the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, the very first one (and favorite of all hopeful Jewish grandparents) is the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28).
Even though our first book begins with God’s first commandment and subsequent blessing to all humanity that we fill the world, curiously, the Jewish people didn’t get off to such a great start.
In fact, the grandparents of the Jewish people had good reason to kvetch and worry about Jewish continuity. Abraham and Sarah had practically given up hope, praying and waiting until 100 and 90 years of age, respectively, to be blessed with Isaac. This week’s portion, Toldot, begins with Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, in a similar predicament: After 20 years of marriage, they still have no children.
This drama is passed on to the next generation, when Jacob and Rachel struggle to build a Jewish family. The very name of our parashah, Toldot (offspring), could not have been more ironic — all our patriarchs and matriarchs, three generations in a row, found God’s blessing of fertility elusive!
The Talmud (Yevamot 64a) suggests that the reason our ancestors were tested this way, and ultimately had children in miraculous fashion, is to teach us the power of prayer. No medical diagnosis, years of trying or family history should cause one to give up hope.
There is another powerful lesson in this story that our sages teach us. The beginning of our parashah relates how Isaac and Rebecca pray together, and how God specifically answers Isaac’s plea (Genesis 25:21). The Talmud (ibid), picking up the nuance of the verse, asks why the Torah makes mention only of Isaac’s prayer being answered and not of Rebecca’s if both were praying. The answer our sages give is that Isaac’s prayer had more impact. The prayer of Isaac — a tzaddik (righteous one) and the child of a tzaddik (Abraham) — would carry more weight than the prayer of Rebecca, a tzaddik but the child of Betuel, a rasha (wicked one).
Yet many commentators are mystified by this answer. Shouldn’t the reverse be true? Shouldn’t Rebecca’s prayer matter even more? She grew up in a challenging environment, surrounded by wickedness and deceit, and overcame numerous obstacles to become a matriarch of the Jewish people. Shouldn’t her prayers be heard before those of Isaac, who was raised by two virtuous parents? What about the talmudic statement that the spiritual status of a baal teshuvah (one who returns to his or her roots) is greater than that of a perfect tzaddik (Berachot 34b)?
One of the most profound answers to this question is not only spiritually transforming, but gives us insight into the depth of the Talmud.
The Talmud (Bava Kama 92a) teaches that the person who prays for God’s mercy on behalf of another (instead of just for oneself) will be answered from heaven first.
Therefore when Isaac was praying, he wasn’t praying for himself and his own needs. Rather his prayer was: “Dear Lord, have pity on my wife, Rebecca, look at what she had to overcome in her life. She is much more deserving of your compassion than I am. I come, after all, from a righteous family, while she grew up in a corrupt family and heroically chose a different way.”
Rebecca’s prayer was the reverse. “Dear Lord,” she pleaded, “I know my family is dysfunctional and perhaps I’m not deserving of such a miraculous blessing. But my husband and his family have sacrificed so much for you. He willingly went to the akedah with his father when you asked. His parents dedicated their very lives to teaching the world about you. Surely, his many merits and those of his parents warrant your mercy.”
This is what the Talmud means, that God answered Isaac’s prayer and said, “You are right. Rebecca, the ba’alat teshuva is more deserving. In the merit of your wife I will grant you both of your heart’s desire to have children.”
So the next time you really need something from the Almighty, don’t focus on yourself. Look around and see if there’s a friend or even a stranger who desperately needs something as well. Beseech God on that person’s behalf. Not only would that be a noble and selfless act, but you may just get answered first as well.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.