In the beginning of our Parashah, we are told that Yitzchak prayed to Hashem regarding his wife, Rivkah, because she was barren. The Torah states this explicitly in the Pasuk, “VaYe’etar Yitchak LaShem LeNochach Ishto Ki Akarah Hi,” “Yitzchak prayed to Hashem for his wife, because she was barren” (BeReishit 25:21). Rabbeinu Bachya raises two questions concerning this Pasuk. Firstly, the Pasuk should have stated first that Rivka was barren, and then, due to this, that Yitzchak prayed for her. Secondly, why does the Pasuk use the word “VaYe’etar” for prayer, instead of the standard word, “VaYitpaleil”?
Rabbeinu Bachya answers the second question based on a Gemara in the first Perek of Mesechet Sukkah. The Gemara asks why the prayer of the righteous is compared to an “Attar,” a pitchfork. It answers that this comparison is made because just like a pitchfork turns the floor of the threshing ground upside down, so too, the prayer of the righteous convinces Hashem to turn over His mindset from the attribute of justice to that of mercy. This explains the word’s relevance to Yitzchak’s prayer. Upon Hashem’s use of the attribute of mercy, Rivkah was able to conceive. It is simply astounding to consider the idea that man’s prayer can be so influential!
Regarding the order of events in the Pasuk, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that if Rivkah’s barren state was mentioned first, it would become the factor that receives the most attention. By first stating that Yitzchak prayed to Hashem, the praying itself becomes the main focus in the Pasuk, and not the inability to conceive. This point is emphasized by a Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah which asks why the matriarchs were barren. The Midrash answers that Hashem desires the righteous’ prayers. Coupled with the answer to the question above, it would seem that Hashem desires our prayers as a crucial and determining factor in the way that events unfold.
After contemplating Rabbeinu Bachya’s words, I began to worry whether his answers might have raised even more devastating questions. Perhaps these Pesukim are misleading! It is wonderful for Rivkah that Yitzchak’s prayers were answered. However, most of us don’t seem to be this fortunate. We pray for the alleviation of sickness and tragedy in many people’s lives, only to witness many unfortunate, painful endings. We don’t seem to be the beneficiaries of prayer in the way that Hashem treated Yitzchak and Rivkah. Additionally, is the Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah suggesting that Hashem puts us in dire straits just to have us pray? It is frightening to think that Hashem would cause suffering merely to hear our verbal anguish.
Upon further examination, I found that Rabbeinu Bachya’s words are not meant to raise these difficult issues. Surely, man will always wonder as to when, if at all, his prayers seem to be answered. Man will always wonder about the timing and purpose for any human suffering. These issues, to be sure, are fully recognized as beyond human understanding. In our particular case, we see that Yitzchak’s prayer was answered rather rapidly. Hashem decided to allow his prayer to be effective and we cannot question this. We should be honored that the Chumash lets us in on such personal details of their lives. Regarding the matriarchs’ inability to conceive, we must sharpen our understanding of the Midrash. I believe that the Midrash was not trying to establish a causal relationship between their inability to conceive and their prayers; Hashem was not using an illness to motivate them to pray. That’s why her status is not mentioned in the beginning of the Pasuk. If it were mentioned first, it would be used as a cause of prayer. By mentioning it second, the Pasuk shows us that it was an opportunity for prayer, an activity that was uniquely embraced by the matriarchs and patriarchs. They loved to pray to Hashem; Hashem loved hearing them. This does not mean suffering is made to cause prayer. It means that Yitzchak is teaching us that man’s first response to any suffering should be to engage Hashem in prayer. Hashem loves to see that under all circumstances, good and bad, we feel the need to communicate and express ourselves to Hashem. While we leave it up to Hashem’s wisdom to determine how our prayers are handled, we acknowledge, in Yitzchak’s merit, that prayer is our first response ability. May Hashem bless us to use this ability to draw closer to Hashem and to deepen and strengthen the connections between all of Bnei Yisrael.