Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.

While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.

They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.

This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.

Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit.

But the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.

Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.

As Avraham enters into the covenant, he circumcises himself in his old age. The first we learn of him afterwards, the first act by the first religious person, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he looked for guests:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

They were no ordinary guests. It turns out that they were angels, on a mission, who anticipated the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham then has an encounter with God, in which God tells him a secret:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sdom! The setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, he actively looks for tired travellers to feed, bathe, and take care of – the anathema of Sdom. So why warn him if he was above it?

Rav Hirsch explains that parsing Hashem’s thoughts carefully, Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham at all.

Hashem shared His plan with Avraham because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing. The conversation stands forever, for בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, to draw a stark contrast.

An old, sick, haggard, and weary Avraham, at his lowest and worst, is the benchmark of humanity, compared to Sdom, a vibrant, wealthy and successful commercial hub.

Rav Hirsch emphasises how this contrast is the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself, entering the covenant that could set him apart, did not. He was in Mamre, land belonging to his old friends and allies. Yet he was out looking for pagan idolators to entertain; there was no-one else he could expect! He gave his mysterious guests incredible luxury, freshly prepared.

That is the first encounter the world has with people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His relationship with greater mankind was only enhanced.

Our role model was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on spirituality and mystical holiness. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions. The descendants of Avraham are charged with being the most humane of men – to show a better way to be; with open hearts, and open hands.

One of the most prominent and enigmatic stories in the entire Jewish tradition is the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida. It is a textbook starting point for discussions of right and wrong; and it cemented Avraham from wandering nomad into the pantheon of Jewish Patriarchs.

Reasonable people have long disagreed over precisely which part of the story constituted the test, but what’s interesting is the way the Torah subtly describes Avraham’s struggle to comply:

קַחנָא אֶתבִּנְךָ אֶתיְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁראָהַבְתָּ, אֶתיִצְחָק, וְלֶךְלְךָ, אֶלאֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son whom you love – Yitzchak – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice… (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – קַחנָא.

Framing it as a request colors the turmoil Avraham faced – we can conceivably imagine Avraham exercising his choice and refusing – which some commentators argue he should have.

As Avraham approached the mountain, he found his task getting harder:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶתעֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place from a distance. (22:4)

The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of Hashem’s names, describing the attribute of immanent omnipresence, that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם.

Something did not feel right. He’d opposed human sacrifice his whole life, and yet here he was; about to destroy his life’s work and his family legacy, so he felt alienated –  וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק.

At the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah doesn’t simply record that Avraham attempted to murder his son. He has to force his hand to pick up the knife –  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶתיָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶתהַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham wanted to resist what he was doing.

After this gut-wrenching struggle, an angel comes to stop him, and the test is thankfully over.

This story is held in the highest esteem, which is one of the reasons we read it on Rosh Hashana.

Not because it is a story about blind obedience and faith, but arguably, the exact opposite.

The lines between right and wrong are not always clear-cut, even for the greatest among us.