Parashat Toledot- Changing Our Perspective on Prayer
In the beginning of Parashat Toledot, we read of Ribka’s infertility, and her and Yishak’s prayers for children. God ultimately accepts their prayers, and Ribka conceives with twins – Esav and Yaakob.
The Talmud takes note of the fact that all four matriarchs – Sara, Ribka, Rahel and Leah – were infertile at one point or another. In the cases of Sara, Ribka and Rahel, they waited for years before being able to have children. The Sages explained that God specifically made the matriarchs infertile “because He desires the prayers of the righteous.” Meaning, He wanted the great Sadikim and Sidkaniyot, our Abot and Imahot, to pray. He brought the anguish of childlessness upon them so that they would be moved to pray to Him.
The obvious question arises, is this fair? If the Abot and Imahot were indeed righteous – which they undoubtedly were – then didn’t they deserve children even without prayer? Why did God make them have to pray for children?
In truth, this question is asked only because of our fundamental misconception about what prayer is, and what purpose it is intended to serve. We often mistakenly approach prayer as a way of getting what we want. At a vending machine, we put in the coins, press the right button, and receive the item we choose. This is how many people view prayer: we recite a specific text in the specified way in the hope of getting what we want, whether it is health, children, financial success, and so on.
From this perspective, it is indeed strange that God would make the righteous matriarchs barren and force them to endure the frustration of infertility just so that they and their husbands would have to go through the exercise of prayer.
But this is not at all what prayer is. The Hebrew word for prayer – “Tefila” – means “tying” or “binding.” Thus, for example, “Tefillin” are the boxes that we tie to our bodies, to connect ourselves with the sacred texts contained within them. And this is the purpose of Tefila – to connect us to God. Our relationship with our Creator is built and enhanced through the experience of prayer. Tefila means not simply saying the words, but also feeling connected to God through the recitation. When we pray, we must exercise the heart, and not only the mouth – because the primary purpose is to connect with the Almighty with our minds and our emotions, and not simply to move our lips.
The Sefer Hakuzari (by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Spain, 1075-1141) writes that for the righteous, the moments of prayer are the highlight of the day. For somebody whose primary aspiration in life is connecting with God, there is nothing more gratifying than prayer. He prays not because he needs money for an expensive car, but because he wants to draw close to God. And this is why prayer is such an exciting and uplifting experience for him.
This excitement can be seen on the faces of righteous people as they pray. In fact, the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, 1817-1893) writes that the reason why Ribka fell from the camel when she saw Yishak for the first time (Bereshit 24:64) was because she saw him praying. The awesome sight of a Sadik like Yishak praying, connecting to the Creator with his entire being, was overwhelming.
We can now perhaps understand the Sages’ comment that God “desires the prayer of the righteous.” The more righteous a person is, the more God wants him or her to pray, to connect and foster a relationship with Him. God orchestrates events and situations to inspire a person to pray so that he can draw closer to his Creator. If our prayers are answered, then this is just the proverbial “icing on the cake.” The primary reward of Tefila is the connection and bond with God.
And this is also how we should approach life’s challenges and difficulties. The Sages’ comment about the matriarchs’ infertility shows us that God will occasionally bring a person to a difficult situation for the specific purpose of inspiring him to pray. Life’s challenges offer us the great opportunity to connect to God through prayer. If we seize that opportunity, then regardless of whether our prayers are answered, we come out of the experience stronger and spiritually elevated. And, we can feel comforted by the knowledge that God wants our prayers, He wants us to build a relationship with Him – and for this precise reason He occasionally brings us into situations that impel us to call to Him in sincere, heartfelt Tefila.