“The Unanswered Prayer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, focuses on the life of the patriarch Isaac and his relationships with his wife, Rebecca and his two sons, Jacob and Esau.

The parasha opens with Isaac and Rebecca praying to G-d that Rebecca be blessed with children. Scripture states (Genesis 25:21): “Va’yeh’eh’tahr Yitzchak la’Hashem l’no’chach ish’toh, kee ah’karah hee, va’yeh’eh’tar lo Hashem, va’ta’har Rivka ish’toh,” and Isaac entreated the Al-mighty, opposite his wife, because she was barren, and G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived.

Barrenness seems to be a common affliction of the matriarchs. In fact, three of the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, experienced barrenness. Our rabbis explain that their barrenness underscores the miraculous existence of the People of Israel, and that were it not for Divine intervention none of these matriarchs would have given birth naturally.

The Malbim states that reproduction is a natural biological phenomenon. Just as animals and vegetables have a means of sustaining their own species, so too, it is only natural for humans to procreate. However, giving birth to unique and holy offspring is not natural, and requires Divine intervention. The matriarchs were barren, so that through the power of their prayers they would merit to produce special and holy offspring.

The Ha’amek Davar maintains that because Rebecca was from Aram Naharayim (Mesopotamia) and was sister of the evil Laban the Aramite, she would have naturally given birth to cruel and wicked children. G-d, therefore, blessed her with barrenness so that the birth would be supernatural, and that her children would be worthy.

The Malbim suggests that it was necessary for Rebecca to prepare for this birth through abundant prayer. The Malbim also notes that the Al-mighty had already promised that Isaac would have progeny. The question was, who would be the mother of his children, leading Isaac to importune the Al-mighty that his children come from Rebecca. By praying opposite his wife, the impact of Isaac’s prayer was enhanced.

The Midrash elaborates further, saying that Isaac and Rebecca lived together for 20 years without children. When he concluded that his wife was definitely barren, Isaac took Rebecca to Mount Moriah, to the place of the Akeida (binding of Isaac). After offering a burnt offering there, Rebecca went to one corner of the mountain to pray, while Isaac went to the other corner to pray.

Isaac pleaded to G-d, “You promised that I would have children. You told my father, Abraham, to name me Isaac, and that You would fulfill Your covenant with Abraham’s child and with his children after him. May it be Thy will that all the children You give me be the offspring of this righteous woman.”

Our rabbis deduce from the Hebrew word “va’yeh’eh’tahr” (the root of which is similar to the word to dig) that Isaac’s prayer was extremely intense, like someone digging to get out of a cave. Scripture, however, does not describe Rebecca’s prayer at all, implying that she may have relied more on Isaac’s prayer than on her own. Perhaps this is another reason why G-d listened and responded to Isaac.

Our rabbis invoke the famous adage that one who prays for others and needs the same healing is answered first (Baba Kama 92a). Therefore, Isaac’s prayer was responded to first, because he prayed for his wife Rebecca, rather than for himself.

Rashi cites perhaps the best known reason for G-d listening to Isaac’s prayer rather than Rebecca’s: “Sheh’ay’no doh’meh tefilat tzaddik ben rasha, l’tefilat tzaddik ben tzaddik,” for the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a wicked person cannot be compared to the prayer of a righteous person who is the child of a righteous person. Since Isaac was the child of the righteous Abraham and Sarah, while Rebecca was the child of the unsavory Bethuel, and the sister of the noted swindler Laban, G-d listened to Isaac’s prayer and not to Rebecca.

This well-known interpretation raises questions. After all, the Talmud in Brachot 34b states emphatically, “In the place where penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot stand!” Should not Rebecca, who came from the ignoble background of Aram Naharayim (Mesopotamia) and from the undesirable lineage of Bethuel, and who raised herself up to become the righteous Rebecca, be seen in G-d’s eyes as more noble than Isaac, who grew up in the extraordinary home of Abraham and Sarah?!

Mere mortals cannot possibly presume to know or understand the Al-mighty’s way of valuing a person. Scripture, however, in this instance, teaches a new insight regarding the challenges that humans face. Sometimes the evil environment in which people are nurtured is so intense that they have no choice but to recoil from those nefarious surroundings. Mending their ways is not so much an act of contrition, as it is an act of survival. So, for example, children who choose to abandon the evil paths of their criminal families do so not necessarily because they think that the lifestyle is intolerable, but because they are convinced that their chances of survival are bleak.

By responding to Isaac’s prayer rather than Rebecca’s, the Torah teaches that goodness and abundance is also a challenge. As we grow older and, hopefully, wiser, we learn to appreciate the fact that being blessed with abundance and what we often perceive as good is not always a welcomed fate. We all pray for wealth and wisdom, and yet we know that extraordinary wealth and uncommon intelligence can be very challenging.

Thus, the challenge of maintaining the righteous and highly moral standards that one witnesses in his or her parents’ lifestyle may be even greater than the challenge of abandoning an evil lifestyle. How often, when faced with such challenges, do people simply throw up their hands and say “This mountain is too high to climb,” or “These expectations are too much for me.”

It is not at all unusual for children who are blessed with special parents to say about themselves, “My parents were blessed with unusual talents. I was not. I could never fill their shoes!” It would be only natural to assume that Isaac would say about himself, “I can never match my parents’ achievements, so why even bother to try?” But Isaac did try. He tried so hard that he is known in Rabbinic literature as “Olah Temimah,” a person completely devoted to G-d.

By listening to Isaac’s prayer, G-d informs us that those who have been favored to be raised in spiritually rich environments, functional homes and in relative wealth and prosperity should not be content with the status quo. Indeed, we need to work on ourselves as well, to always strive to be better than we were yesterday.

May you be blessed.