Tzadiq ben Rasha
וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ
And Yitzchaq pleaded with Hashem opposite his wife, for she was sterile, and Hashem responded to his pleas, and Rivqa became pregnant.“לנכח אשתו” – זה עומד בזוית זו ומתפלל וזו עומדת בזוית זו ומתפללת (יבמות סד.)
“ויעתר לו” – לו ולא לה שאין דומה תפלת צדיק בן צדיק לתפלת צדיק בן רשע לפיכך לו ולא לה
“Opposite his wife” — he stood in one corner and prayed, and she stood in another corner and prayed. (Yevamos 64a)
“And [Hashem] responded to him” — his and not hers. For there is no comparison between the prayer of a tzadiq ben tzadiq (a righteous person the child of a righteous person) to the prayer of a tzadiq ben rasha (a righteous person the child of someone evil). Therefore [the verse tells us] “his” [were responded to] and not “hers”.
– Rashi ad loc
If it were not for our tradition, a natural translation would have been that Yitzchaq prayed on behalf of his wife. However, Chazal tell us that “nokhach” here should be taken as “opposite” — they were praying in opposite corners of the room. Which then raises the question of why Hashem only responded to Yitzchaq and not Rivqa. And they answer that his is because the son of Avraham’s tefillos, those of a tzadiq ben tzadiq are incomparable to those of Rivqa’s, the daughter of Besu’el, the rasha.
And the simple take on this idea would be simply fiduciary — Yitzchaq has more merits in his spiritual “bank account” than Rivqa because he has an inheritence from Avraham. That makes his prayers incomparably superior, and that is why Hashem responded to him rather than Rivqa.
There is a problem with any implication that reward or punishment can be inherited, that one person gains or suffers for the deeds of another — even a parent. It lacks justice. We grapple with this problem in the 13 Middos haRachamim, “נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים … פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים — He preserves lovingkindness for thousands [of generations]…. He remembers this sins of the parents on the children, on the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren.” And yet Yechezqeil (18:4) asserts “הֵן כָּל הַנְּפָשׁוֹת לִי הֵנָּה כְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָב וּכְנֶפֶשׁ הַבֵּן לִי הֵנָּה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַחֹטֵאת הִיא תָמוּת — Behold all the souls are Mine, like the soul of the parents and the should of the child; it is the soul who sins that dies.” Children do not die for the sins of the parents. Chazal’s resolution is in accord with the words of the 10 Diberos (Shemos 20:4-5), “פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי. וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי — I remember the sin of the parents on the children, the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren to those who hate Me. I act with Lovingkindness to thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and keep My mitzvos.” The descendants who get punished for the sins of their parents are those who continue on with those sins.
The (or at least “a”) point of it all is that even though the tinoq shenishba, the child kidnapped and raised by his captors, or anyone who sins as a product of their upbringing, isn’t fully culpable for their sin, Hashem will still punish them as necessary for their own improvement. It isn’t that the punishment is inherited from their parents acts, but that the broken attitude that needs correction could be passed down.
So it’s not speaking of punishment for the tzadiq ben rasha.
It may be easier to analyze Yitzchaq in contrast to a different tzadiq ben rasha. There is far more material analyzing Avraham’s spiritual development than Rivqa’s. But Avraham, Terach the idol-maker’s son, is also a self-made person who grew despite his upbringing, rather than because of it.
Rav Elazar (Pesachim 88a) contrasts the way in which each of the forefathers encountered G-d. When Avraham encounters Moriah, he calls it “Har Hashem Yeira’eh — the Mountain Where Hashem Will be Seen” (Bereishis 22). Yitzchaq goes “lasuach basadeh — to pray in the field”, an entirely different perception of Moriah. Yaaqov later calls the name of the place “Beis E-l — the house of G-d”, yet a third way of seeing Moriah; Yaaqov encounters G-d in a home.
I’m setting aside Yaaqov for the moment, as he doesn’t relate to this particular contrast. See my post of 2006, “Parshas Vayeitzei: Mountain, Field, House” for a discussion of all three. Here I will just look at the mountain vs the field, and omit the home, the model of the synthesis.
Avraham, the tzadiq ben rasha, meets the Creator atop a mountain. Every step of the way is a climb, rising above his past. He starts with “lekh lekha — leave for yourself your homeland, your birthplace, your father’s home.” It’s a life of yisurim, 10 tests, each one a growth experience, an ascent.
In contrast, Yitzchaq’s biography in the Torah is quite short. And much of it is Yitzchaq following in his father’s footsteps. Returning to Gerar, re-digging the old wells. The tzadiq ben tzadiq doesn’t struggle to leave the past, his task is to nurture the legacy he was given. To water the plants of the field, care for them, so that they grow.
Notice that Chazal do not say that the tzadiq ben tzadiq‘s prayer is more likely to be answered “yes” because he is incomparably greater. There is no discussion of quantity. Just that they are incomparable.
I would suggest that the difference is the value of a “yes” or a “no” answer in each kind of life. Rivqa’s life is that of climbing a mountain; the skill a tzadiq ben rasha develops most is to fight and grow through adversity. When Rivqa makes a request of G-d, there is more value to her getting a “no” than there would be for Yitzchaq. Yitzchaq has zekhus avos, a seedling inherited from his father that he must tend to. Challenges are more likely to stifle that work. Thus a “yes” is more likely to be the correct response to the tzadiq ben tzadiq.
The difference isn’t “simply” fiduciary — that Hashem owes Avraham’s son. Nor is it “only” causal, that Avraham put forces into play that aid Yitzchaq. It is purposive; each person getting the life best suited to their life’s mission.