By Rav Jesse Horn
Although both Yitzhak and Rivka immerse themselves deeply in prayer asking for Rivka to become pregnant, it is Yitzhak’s prayers that Hashem hears and accepts. When answering why Hashem responds positively specifically to Yitzhak’s prayers, as opposed to Rivka’s, Rashi (Bereshit 25:21) explains that Yitzhak’s father was also righteous and the prayer of a second generation Tzadik (righteous person) (Tzadik Ben Tzadik) is more likely to be heard than the prayer of a first generation Tzadik (Tzadik Ben Rasha).
Although Rashi certainly answers the original question, another, and perhaps more demanding question arises. Why? Why does Hashem answer the prayers of a second generation Tzadik before those of a first generation’s? Shouldn’t Hashem answer one’s prayers based who they are and how well they pray? Why should one’s parents’ religious status make a difference? Moreover a first generation Tzadik has a spiritual accomplishment that a second generation Tzadik does not. The hard work and self-initiated commitment that inspired them to return to Torah. After all, Chazal (Otzer Midrashim and Yalkut Shimoni Pershat Bereshit) state “In a place where a Baal Teshuva (first generation Tzadik) stands, even compete Tzadikim (righteous people) cannot stand.” Why then would Hashem prioritize answering a second generation Tzadik over a first generation one?
The Baer B’Sadeh (a super-commentary, a commentary on Rashi on Bereshit 25:21) answers that in fact this is what Rashi believes. One’s parent’s religiosity doesn’t impact on the likelihood of being answered. Yitzhak prayed with Z’chut Avot (the merit of his fathers) while Rivka did not. Naturally, he was answered, but presumably if she had prayed with the same Zchut Avot, she would have been answered herself.
This certainly resolves the difficulty raised regarding the unbalanced treatment that the second generation Tzadik received, because now, according to the Baer B’Sadeh, there is no unbalanced treatment. All people are regarded equally concerning the likelihood to have prayer answered, Yitzhak simply prayed better. However, this doesn’t seem to be the simple reading of Rashi. After all Rashi didn’t mentioned anything about Zchut Avot, he spoke about the status of a second generation Tzadik.
Perhaps an alternative suggestion can be made to answer this question asked on Rashi. Perhaps, in fact, Hashem does answer the requests of a second generation Tzadik quicker than those of a first generation one. In order to explain why, we must attempt to understand why Hashem answers prayer at all.
How can Hashem responsibly answer our prayers in the first place? Seemingly Hashem should do what is best for the world, on an objective level, regardless of what any one man desires. Why change the plans for the cosmos from the ideal possible outcome to something inferior based on man’s request. People, with their limited understanding of the world and their great imperfections, should not have their wishes and prayers answered when Hashem has a better plan for the world. How then does prayer work?
There are two explanations as to how Hashem can responsibly answer our prayers.
Firstly, prayer is transformative. The one praying changes the reality, and with an entirely new set of facts of the ground, there can now be a different and better outcome (Sefer HaIkarim 4:18). Although other Mitzvot too may transform the one performing the Mitzvah as well (Sefer HaIkarim 4:18), prayer represents a direct recognition of Hashem being in control of the world, and may therefore be more likely to enable the different and desired outcome (Hashem often puts man is a position where prayer is necessary to help man find Hashem. See the Ohr HaChaim on Shemot 17:3).
Secondly, because of Hashem’s great love for and closeness to man He wants to answer our prayers. Needless to say that He would not irresponsibly or recklessly answer them when doing so would lead to greater catastrophic results for the world. However, when the difference between the two possible outcomes is smaller than the value of expressing love to those close to Him and the desire to answer man’s supplication, Hashem will answer our prayers. Hashem values expressing love to those connected to Him, especially when it rewards those who illustrate their closeness and trust in Him. That is why Hashem is more likely to answer prayer when it is sincere and heartfelt (Ohr Hashem 3:2:1).
Based on this, we can revisit Rashi with a new and insightful vantage-point. A first generation Tzadik is different from a second generation one. More reward is given to a first generation Tzadik because of the great challenges they overcome (Rambam Teshuva 7:4) and one is rewarded based upon their struggles (Prikey Avot 5:23). In that sense the first generation Tzadik is unique and Chazal can understandably, state, “In a place where a Baal Teshuva (first generation Tzadik) stands, even compete Tzadikim (righteous people) can not stand.” However, a second generation Tzadik is special as well. There is an unusual intimacy that exists between Hashem and a second generation Tzadik. Because Hashem answers man’s prayers based on closeness to Him, it is precisely this closeness which makes Hashem more inclined to answer his prayers first.
Perhaps this is what the Maskil L’Dovid (another super-commentary, a commentary on Rashi on Bereshit 25:21) means by explaining Rashi with a parable of a king, who would show more honor to another visiting king from another land than a second-in-command from his own cabinet. However, when it comes to whose requests the king would respond positively to, it is the close cabinet member.
There is an advantage to both the first and second generation Tzadik. The first generation Tzadik has a special place in Hashem’s heart for his accomplishments and success in the face of adversity. The second generation has a special closeness just like the second-in-command from his cabinet, one which makes Hashem more inclined to answers his prayers.