We all have limitations. Some of us are stagnating, feeling unable to overcome the hurdles life has placed in front of us. Some of us thrive as a result of a challenging environment—our struggles refine our characters and make us even greater people. And sometimes, no matter what we do, we cannot seem to rise above the circumstances of our birth. Alone, we do not know how to harness the necessary tools to arrive at the next level of our spiritual journey.

A person in this situation must decide: do I stay where I am, unfulfilled yet knowing I tried my best; or do I seek help, do I attach myself to someone who can see beyond my limited vision and allow them to pull me up with them?

Some of us thrive as a result of a challenging environment

As much as we know we need to constantly strive, reaching out to someone else to help enable us to reach our spiritual potential takes a great deal of humility, especially if that person is your husband. This was the case with Rebecca and Isaac early on in their marriage.

The first two sentences of our Torah portion, Toldot, inform us of the familial relationships of Isaac and Rebecca:

Verse 19: These are the descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac.

Verse 20: Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca, the daughter of Betuel the Aramean, of Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean, for a wife.

We are well aware of Abraham’s righteousness, but who were Betuel the Aramean and Lavan the Aramean? We will become all too familiar with Lavan and his evil ways in the Torah portions of the coming weeks. The Midrash relates to us stories of Betuel’s evil doings as well. Despite this negative family environment, last week we read just how far Rebecca’s chessed (lovingkindness) extended with regard to Abraham’s servant Eliezer, when she watered all of his camels for him. Rashi tells us that the only reason Rebecca’s lineage is mentioned here is to praise her: “She was the daughter of an evil person, the sister of an evil person, from a place of evil people, and yet she did not learn their deeds.” She clearly rose above and beyond the circumstances of her birth!

Her limitations, however, become apparent in the next sentence:

Verse 21: Isaac prayed to G‑d on behalf of his wife, for she was barren. G‑d granted his prayer and his wife, Rebecca, conceived.

Is it possible, as the verse implies, that only Isaac prayed for their ability to conceive? Can you imagine a woman struggling with infertility not pouring her heart out in her own prayers? Rashi assures us that she most definitely prayed as well. Based on the Talmud, Rashi illustrates for us how they each stood in their own corner and prayed to G‑d to be blessed with a child. Yet, even though Rebecca was proactive and they worked together as a couple to overcome their difficulties, the text begs the question: why is Isaac’s prayer the only one mentioned and the only one explicitly answered?

Rashi’s explanation provides its own set of questions: “The Torah says ‘his prayer’ and not 'her prayer.' This is because the prayer of a tzaddik (a righteous person) who is also the child of a tzaddik is not the same as the prayer of a tzaddik who is the child of a wicked person.”

What limited Rebecca was actually thinking she had limitations

Is Rashi telling us that there is a qualitative difference in the prayers of Rebecca and Isaac? Actually, yes. Rebecca thought she had limitations. She did not grow up in a home of G‑d-fearing people. While she was born with certain innate qualities, she had to make a conscious effort to be good and do the right thing, constantly battling the norms surrounding her. Isaac was surrounded from his time in the womb with righteous people. There was nothing to slow down his rise to great spiritual heights. There was only encouragement and continued growth. How could Rebecca’s prayer ever match that of her husband?

What limited Rebecca was actually thinking she had limitations. While Rebecca was praying to G‑d on behalf of her husband’s illustrious lineage, Isaac was praying on behalf of her incredible growth and continued potential! He said to G‑d, “Please, G‑d, my wife grew up in the home of such wicked people as Betuel and Lavan, yet she is so righteous. She certainly deserves to be blessed with a child.”1

The Torah is telling us that Isaac’s prayer was the only one explicitly accepted not because of who he was, but because of who Rebecca was. Rebecca’s prayer was ineffective because she did not have enough trust in her own qualities and her own ability to achieve greatness. She could not achieve her proper role until she was able to see herself through her husband’s eyes, that she was a woman with the innate capability to reach tremendous spiritual heights both because of and in spite of her background!

Just as Isaac was able to look beyond Rebecca’s background to see the amazing qualities that would make her his ideal partner in forging the Jewish people, Rebecca was able to see how Isaac would help her to achieve what she could not do alone. He, with his pure upbringing, could open her mind to the spiritual heights she was capable of, but not fully aware of because of her background. He also knew that because of where she came from and how she was raised, she had traversed many more miles of spiritual growth than he would ever experience. With these mutual feelings of humility and respect, they were blessed with a child.

So, we learn that often, to truly know who we are and what we are capable of, we have to see ourselves through the eyes of another. And that ultimately, the only limitations we really have are the ones we put on ourselves.