“The Exceptional Power of Prayer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, opens, we find Isaac in the process of entreating G-d that his wife, Rebecca, should give birth to a child.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:21 states, וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַהשׁם לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא, וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ השׁם, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, And Isaac entreated G-d, opposite his wife, because she was barren. The L-rd allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived.

There are many subtle nuances embedded in this particular verse and many lessons that can be derived upon closer inspection.

The commentators note Scripture’s strange description of Isaac entreating G-d, ”l’noh’chach,” לְנֹכַח, opposite his wife, rather than on behalf of his wife. The Rashbam maintains that it actually means, on behalf of his wife.

The Meshech Chochmah  notes that Isaac was certain that he would have children since, long ago, when the Al-mighty promised Abraham that he should name his new child Isaac (Genesis 17:19) G-d added: “and I [G-d] will fulfill My covenant with him…for his offspring after him.” Therefore, Isaac was not concerned about not having children, but rather by the possibility that another woman other than Rebecca might bear his children. He therefore prayed, “L-rd Almighty, may all the children that You give me be from the womb of this righteous woman.”

The Sforno similarly notes that even though Isaac was promised children who would inherit him, Isaac entreated G-d, that his children be born from the exceptional woman who is before him.

The Talmud, in Yevamot 64a, claims that not only was Rebecca barren but that Isaac, too, was sterile. They derive this from the fact that the verse states that Isaac prayed “opposite” his wife, rather than for his wife, indicating that they were both unable to bear children. Why then does the verse conclude, “G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by him,” rather than say that G-d responded to them both? From this we learn (see Rashi Genesis 25:21) that the prayers of a righteous person [Rebecca], the descendant of a non-righteous person [Laban], cannot be compared to the prayers of a righteous person [Isaac], the descendant of a righteous person [Abraham].

In response to the question as to why the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were so often barren, the Talmud further states that, “G-d desires the prayers of the righteous and longs for their petitions.” And just as the prayers of the righteous are compared to an “eh’tehr,” עֶתֶר, a pitchfork or a shovel that churns the wheat from one place to another, so do the prayers of the righteous turn G-d’s attributes from anger to compassion.

The Midrash Rabba in Nitzavim 88 speaks of the intense power of prayer before the Al-mighty. Citing the example of Cain who slew his brother, Abel, Rabbi Eliezer states that the power of prayer is so great that even when it does not achieve its full effect, it is at least partially effective. Even though Cain received a heavenly punishment (Genesis 4:12) of, נָע וָנָד תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, that he would be a vagrant and a wanderer on earth, when Cain stood up before the Al-mighty and declared that his sin is too great for him to bear and said, “Al-mighty G-d, You were able to bear all the sins but mine You cannot?” Cain immediately found grace in G-d’s eyes. G-d cancelled half of the decree, and granted that Cain no longer be a vagrant, only a wanderer. Therefore, the Torah says (Genesis 4:16), וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ נוֹד, that Cain dwelled in the land of Nod, which means movement. The reduced punishment for the murderer underscores the great power of prayer.

Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, asks why the rabbis of the Midrash could not find a better example other than cite the power of Cain’s prayer. After all, in response to Isaac’s prayer, a child was born, demonstrating the great power of prayer that was answered in its entirety. Rabbi Povarsky explains that Cain was punished by G-d to be a vagrant and a wanderer because of his despicable act of murder, an act so vile, that it could not be nullified in its entirety.

On the other hand, the reason for Isaac and Rebecca’s barrenness was not because of any sin on their part, but because G-d desired the prayers of these righteous people. Therefore, the fulfillment of their prayers was something they truly deserved. The fulfillment of the wicked Cain’s prayers was not at all deserved. Nevertheless, the power of prayer of even the wicked Cain had the power to achieve partial forgiveness.

What a wonderful lesson to learn concerning the power of prayer. And the power of prayer when praying for one other than one’s self is even greater.

May you be blessed.