Specialization In Spirituality by Rabbi Benny Berlin

The Pasuk towards the beginning of Parashat Toldot tells us that Rivka responded to her unusually difficult pregnancy by going “li-drosh et Hashem” – “to seek out G-d” (25:22). Rashi, based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 63), explains this as a reference to prophetic consultation. She went to the prophet Shem (Noach’s son, who was still alive) to inquire as to what the future held for her pregnancy.

Why did Rivka consult with Shem, rather than with her father-in-law, Avraham who was alive at the time? I heard a fascinating explanation from Rabbi David Silverberg quoting the Netziv.

The Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar, suggests (somewhat boldly, perhaps) that Avraham was simply not as qualified for this job as Shem. Prophets, the Netziv writes, came in two different forms. There were those with whom God spoke on occasion to convey specific information, and others who had access to otherwise concealed information through ru’ach ha-kodesh. Avraham belonged to the first class of prophets, whereas Shem was of the second type. Rivka naturally decided to consult with Shem, rather than Avraham, because she needed somebody with prophetic knowledge of future events, something with which Shem was endowed but that Avraham lacked.

The Netziv’s approach is perhaps significant in that it reflects the concept of “specialization” with regard to spiritual greatness and leadership. That tradition generally holds Avraham in higher esteem than Shem, and that Avraham undoubtedly had a far greater impact upon the spiritual progress of mankind, does not necessarily mean that Avraham outshined Shem in every respect. And this is true as well of great rabbinic figures throughout Jewish history. Am Yisrael has always been graced with great halakhic scholars, profound philosophical thinkers, creative exegetes, gifted orators, calculated policy-makers, and inspiring educators and figureheads. Only on rare occasions are all these qualities combined within a single persona. More often than not, spiritual greatness manifests itself more prominently in one area, or in a small number of areas, than in others.

Rivka’s decision to consult with Shem, rather than her father-in-law, by no means reflected greater respect toward Shem. Rather, she understood that her particular need on this particular occasion required the services of Shem, and not of Avraham, despite Avraham’s generally superior stature.