The Necessity of Choice
Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife because she was barren. And Hashem answered him, and Rivka his wife conceived (25:21)
According to Rashi, both Yitzchak and Rivka were praying for a child, but Hashem answered only him and not her. Why? Answers Rashi: Because there is no comparison between the prayer of a tzaddik who is the child of an evildoer to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person.
I suspect that most of us have at some point found ourselves puzzled, even angered, by Rashi’s comment? Why should the merit of a tzaddik be greater by virtue of being the child of a tzaddik? If anything, is it not more meritorious to have completely separated oneself from a house of evil, as Rivka did, than to continue on in the path set by one’s parents.
The source of our confusion is that we do not properly understand what is meant by a tzaddik who is the child of a tzaddik. Had Yitzchak just emulated the example of his father Avraham he would not have been considered a tzaddik. Indeed, explains Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, anything we do solely because our parents taught us to do so does not confer any merit upon us.
Imitation, in short, does not confer merit. Only those actions that we make fully ours through conscious exercise of our free will are meritorious.
Yitzchak’s father Avraham was the greatest man who had ever lived. Avraham discovered Hashem through the use of his own intellect, and then proclaimed His existence to the entire world. The stature of Avraham, and the example that he had constantly before him, could easily have overwhelmed Yitzchak.
If, as Rav Dessler maintains, the exercise of one’s free will only begins where the parental model ends, the initial bar was set higher for Yitzchak than anyone who had ever proceeded him. What could Yitzchak hope to add to the path of Avraham? Yet in order for Yitzchak to be considered a tzaddik he had to do precisely that.
Only when he had added an entirely new derech of avodas Hashem, gvurah, to the chesed of Avraham, could Yitzchak be considered a tzaddik. Even when performing the same external actions as Avraham – e.g., digging the same wells that the servants of Avraham had dug – Yitzchak brought something of his inner being to those actions, and made them his own.
A PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT it meant for Yitzchak Avinu to be a “tzaddik ben tzaddik” has important implications for us in our role as parents and educators. It is not enough for us to teach our children the right thing to do. We have to empower them to make choices. We would not, for instance, allow our children to choose between good and bad, but we have to give them room to choose between two good paths, between better and best.
Without instilling in young Jews an awareness of their own bechira, of life as an endless series of choices, we doom them to remain forever superficial Jews falling far short of reaching their potential.
We define ourselves as individuals through the exercise of our free will, according to Rav Dessler. And that self-definition is the precondition for any meaningful relationship with Hashem. Any true relationship must be based on the individuality of both parties and not compelled by circumstances beyond their control. Only because we are capable of defining ourselves through the exercise of our free will do we exist as individuals capable of relating to Hashem.
To be a choosing being means, above all, to be a thinking being. A teacher once asked a group of eight-year-olds, to define a tzaddik. Most gave answers like, “A tzaddik is someone who fasts every Monday and Thursday.” But one little girl, the daughter of a famous educator, answered, “My tatte says that a tzaddik is someone who does what is right.”
It is worth contemplating the wisdom contained in that simple statement. First, it implies that every moment presents us with an opportunity to do what is right or the opposite. And that, in turn, requires us to think about what we are doing and why.
Where we see young people raised in observant homes and educated in religious educational environments lacking any deep connection to mitzvah observance, it is often because they have never experienced the mitzvos as anything more than obligations imposed from the outside. It has never occurred to them to ask: What kind of person does the Torah seek to shape? What would person shaped by the Torah look like; how would he or she act?
At best, the mitzvos are seen as a sort of checklist, the entry ticket that has to be paid for the right to do what one wants. But once one has gone through the checklist – e.g., negel vasser, bircos hashachar, Shachris, etc. – one has paid off the admission ticket and is now free to get on with one’s real life.
A famous youth organizer once asked a group of Orthodox teenagers if they had a choice to be born again would they prefer to be born Jewish or not. Well over half responded that they would prefer not to be born Jewish. And that is not so surprising. For if the mitzvos are just arbitrary obligations to be paid to enter the game of life, who wouldn’t prefer to enter free of charge, with no admission ticket required.
The Jewish Observer recently carried an important piece on the subject of “Adults at Risk.” Those described are just the kids mentioned above a few decades down the line. They never thought about the mitzvos in any deep fashion. Then suddenly one day they woke up and asked: Why I am doing these things? At that point, it no longer suffices that they’ve been doing these things (i.e., performing mitzvos, davening) all their lives, or that is what their parents or teachers taught them to do.
The problem, in Rav Dessler’s terminology, is that the mitzvos always remained external; they never became something truly theirs – internal – through the conscious exercise of choice. They brought nothing of themselves to their mitzvah observance — no thought, no feeling. And then one day, the emptiness hit.
That is what happens if we only teach our children what to do, without at the same time developing their ability to exercise their free will as conscious, thinking Jews.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on November 11th 2007.