Having read an intriguing series of posts from Rebeljew on the Ba’al Teshuvah experience, reminded me that the experience of FFBs presents its own set of challenges. For a number of years, I have seen Yitzchak Avinu, the world’s first FFB, as a paradigm for those challenges, especially as his experience unfolds in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Please bear in mind that this in no way exhausts the potential to read Yitzchak in this light, rather represents some of my own somewhat disjointed thoughts on the issue.
This parsha tells Yitzchak’s story. Abraham’s death is recorded at the end of last week’s parsha even though he lived to see the events at the beginning of this week’s. Once he ‘passed the torch’ to Yitzchak after his marriage to Rivkah, and his story is no longer relevant to the continuity of God’s covenant with man. Yishmael, the rejected son of Abraham, is given short shrift, so that the story of Yitzchak can begin. The same pattern repeats at the end of Vayishlach and beginning of Vayeshev, ayen sham, ve-acamo”l.
Yitzchak’s story is summed up it the first verse of the Parsha: This is the story of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.
That’s who Yitzhcak was, Avraham’s kid. Rashi directs us to a Midrash here that states that Avraham and Yitzchak were virtually indistinguishable, so there would be no room for cynics to suggest that Yitzchak was the son of anyone else. The Midrash communicates the latent message of this verse – that Yitzchak’s entire life, entire experience, goals, attitudes, and even the way he presented himself, were strongly shaped by his upbringing in the house of Avraham.
It’s not easy to be ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. Dad’s the guy who hears the Voice of God, but the kid’s the one who ends up getting sacrificed. From a very young age, the pressure to speak and act in a particular way are enormous, as everyone has different expectations from ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. I’ve seen with my own two eyes how two students may be carrying on in the exact same manner, but the Rabbi’s Kid is singled out because he ‘ought to know better’. The kid would wish nothing more that to simply be like everyone else, with little or no expectations.
In a sense, every FFB is a ‘Rabbi’s Kid’, to the extent that they live in a culture where they are keenly aware that they have different expectations from those in the surrounding culture. The child is tethered to the values and behaviors of the parents, with little or no opportunity to discover for themselves what would make a person desire or choose this awkward lifestyle.
In the second verse of the Parsha, Yitzchak’s experience is contrasted by the experience of Rivkah, the ultimate NCSY story. Again Rashi points us in this direction; she was born to a wicked man, in a wicked place, and had a wicked brother. She walked 9 miles each way to the synagogue, both ways uphill, in 2 feet of snow, yadda, yadda, yadda. She’s the ultimate Ba’alat Teshuva, having had no expectations given her upbringing.
But in the third verse, again, taking Rashi’s approach, we see that this introduction was almost a set-up for what ensues. When they pray for a kid, Yitzchak is answered, not Rivkah. Someone who overcame so much and someone who was given everything on a silver platter, and the latter’s prayers are more powerful. Rashi even tells us that prayer of a 'tzaddik ben rasha’ – the righteous the son of the wicked – is qualitatively inferior to prayer of a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ – the righteous the son of the righteous. Why?
I’ve heard in the name of R’ Simcha Zissl of Kelm that the key term is ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ and not just ‘ben tzaddik’. The process by which ‘the son of the righteous’ who, by default, by habit, would be acting in a manner that would be consistent with ‘righteousness’ at conventionally understood. It’s no small matter for a person to become a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’.
Religious growth can be conceptualized into two categories – change which manifests externally and change which does not manifest externally. Rivkah always had a ‘foil’, a starting point against which to gauge her growth. Yitzchak had no such luxury. If he was to grow and mature as a religious person, any change would be completely invisible to the world. It is a process which requires a great degree of self-awareness, to distinguish between elements of one’s personality which are habit, and those which have been freely affirmed. There is a certain comfort in ‘externalizing’ one’s religious growth, which can be seen regularly in the contemporary Orthodox community. This implicitly recognizes that interior growth with no external manifestation is very, very, difficult to affect and engenders constant insecurity with one’s own religious state.
The verb ‘to pray’, in Hebrew, is reflexive. Jewish tradition has understood prayer as a process of self-discovery and self-judgment. The prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is indeed a potent prayer.
Yitzchak’s personality, in the Jewish mystical tradition, is connected to the process of ‘judgment’, again reflecting the process of ‘pure judgment’ by which he must scrutinize himself.
He is seen as the originator of the mincha prayer – said at a time where both the sudden clarity of morning and the confusion and darkness of night are absent. There’s light, but it’s old light.
Yitchak follows in his fathers footsteps, struggling against adversity to dredge the wells that his father had originally dug. Is that not the ultimate FFB experience? Redigging our fathers’ wells? Trying to rediscover the freshness and life within them?