Prayer from the Heart (Parashat Toledot – Genesis 25:19 – 28:9) Parashat Toledot presents us the Torah’s second incident of a barren woman. Like Sarah in the previous generation, we are now told that the current matriarch – Rebecca – is unable to bear children. With Sarah, the temporary solution was for her husband Abraham to father a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. Although Sarah eventually gave birth to a son (Isaac), the episode with Hagar and Ishmael (the son Abraham fathered with Hagar) created painful circumstances resulting in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s household.
In Rebecca’s case, there is no Hagar, and the idea of any “temporary solution” is not even contemplated. Interestingly, the verse telling of Rebecca being barren also contains Isaac’s approach to solving this crisis: “Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his wife, because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21). Rather than seeking external and temporary solutions to his wife’s problem, Isaac chooses to turn to God and pray.
The classic Hebrew word for prayer is Tefillah, but when telling us that Isaac prayed, the Torah uses the term “va-ye-e-tar Yitshak” – “and Isaac pleaded.” What is the significance in characterizing Isaac’s prayer as a “plea” to God?
In a creative play on words, the Talmud compares the potential power of prayer delivered with a plea (ye-e-tar) to the function of a pitchfork (which in Hebrew is called atar – sounding like ye-e-tar). The Talmud teaches: “Just as the pitchfork (atar) turns sheaves of grain from one position to another, so do the prayers of righteous people – delivered with a plea (ye-e-tar) – turn the position of God from anger to mercy.”
We are taught: Ma’aseh Avot Siman La-Banim – “The Deeds of the Patriarchs serve as an example to their descendants.” There are many today who attend classes about prayer. In this instance, Isaac did not teach us about prayer. Instead, he taught us something much more powerful: how to pray.