A recurring theme in the stories of our ancestors is that they do not have families easily or naturally. They repeatedly have to beg, fight, and struggle to have the children God had promised. Once such time this happened with Yitzchak and Rivka:
‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה – Yitzchak begged the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and God conceded. (21:25)
The Torah tells this story with unusually heavy language – ויעתר. It’s a powerful verb for prayer, connoting earnest desperation; and the Torah uses another construct of the same word to indicate God’s almost reluctant acquiescence – ‘וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה.
This isn’t really congruent with the classical understanding or even our basic expectation of what prayer looks like. We would probably think that God desires our prayers and the vicissitudes of life present opportunities that we might reach out. This is actually an aspect of why our ancestors were frequently barren!
Yet in this instance, God “concedes” to the prayer, as though defeated by this unwelcome request to give Yitzchak and Rivka the family they so desperately want!
Why was this prayer so unwelcome?
R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that what we have here is a prime example of the right thing at the wrong time.
Rashi suggests that Avraham died five years sooner than he might have, as a kindness to spare him from watching his grandson Esau become a murderer. It follows that the sooner Esau would be born, the sooner Avraham would die. This might help explain the difficulty God has in accepting this prayer – it’s the right thing, but it’s not yet the right time. While Gematria probably isn’t the most serious analytical tool, R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld noted that the value of וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה is 748, equivalent to חמש שנים, the five years Avraham died too soon.
The Gemara in Shkalim tells a similar story of how the people of King David’s day would mock his inability to build the Beis HaMikdash, wondering when he’d die, and David, thinking he was channeling what God wanted, wistfully hoped the joke would come true, quite literally wishing his life away. So God corrected him and explained that David’s good deeds were worth more than any sacrifices, educating David that what thought he had wanted for God wasn’t what God wanted at all. We don’t always want the thing we think we want, and it’s not always good to get it.
As far as Yitzchak’s powerful prayer, God wasn’t quite ready to bless them with Yakov and Esau at the expense of letting Avraham go, so God allowed Himself to be persuaded and convinced, seduced by the tears of Yitzchak’s prayer because it wasn’t quite time yet.
R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes the mirroring of Yitzchak’s prayer to God’s response – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר. Yitzchak prays opposite his wife, facing her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, as opposed to with her, together, suggesting he wasn’t doing it for himself, but for her. Yitzchak’s defining feature is seriousness – גבורה – someone who accepts and takes thing seriously. If God doesn’t want to give him children, he is at peace; when he thought God had asked for his life, he was at peace! He is not on the same page as Rivka, not with her.
But facing her, seeing her pain and anguish, he could move himself to pray, and if he couldn’t do it for himself, he could do it for her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ. This might go some way toward explaining the force of the prayer, and the mirroring of the words – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר – Yitzchak is removing himself from a position he is comfortable with specifically for a position he is not, precisely mirroring the position he asks God to take, to upend the status quo where Avraham lives his full life, in favor of a reality where Rivka has her children sooner, but Avraham’s dies early.
We might find it disturbing to realize that our prayers can hurt us, and if we can sabotage ourselves by wanting and asking for the wrong thing, then maybe we shouldn’t ask for anything at all and let destiny and fate play out as they will! But in truth, outside of prayer, we consistently chase and want the wrong things in our lives all the time.
If you want something, you figure out the price and pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious but packs extraordinary power. As intelligent people, we understand that it means the determination, effort, and investment it takes to get what we want; and as religious people, we understand that it means prayer as well.
Which brings us back to Yitzchak’s prayer.
Yitzchak could pray for Rivka, but undisturbed and unphased as he was by God’s apparent decree of childlessness, only exposing himself to Rivka’s pain could make it real. You can’t mean it if you just don’t care enough, and caring is why we pray at all – we don’t throw up our hands and leave things to destiny and fate. There’s a monumental difference in the mentality of just hoping business sort of works out, in contrast with “Lord, I need this to work so I can feed my family!” Generalities are accurate, but they don’t move us. How could they? What moves us is being precise, so our prayers have to be precise so that it can come from the heart.
If we are supposed to get something if we put in the efforts but fail to pray, we could end up foreclosing something that was coming our way. And if we’re nervous about praying for the wrong thing, we might pray vaguely; but if we pray vaguely, then we wouldn’t mean it! So we pray with precision and with heart and hedge it with a hope for the best.
The hedge of hoping for the best is for when we are so stuck on an outcome that we just need it to work. And sometimes it really is that way! No matter what, Yitzchak needed Rivka to have children. But far more often, the things we want don’t end up cutting our parent’s lives short. For most of what we want, it’s probably healthier to have an attitude of outcome independence, and it’s worth introspecting if what we are looking for isn’t just this specific thing but an underlying need we think we need this thing for. Maybe if the thing I want isn’t the answer, then help me get closer. If it’s not this deal, or this house, or this job, or this relationship, I hope to find what I’m really looking for – dignity, fulfillment, security, and happiness. We are often stuck on something because we have a scarcity mentality when the Universe is actually abundant.
Hedging our ability to self-sabotage is a surprisingly regular feature in our prayers, like ימלא כל משאלות ליבך לטובה – I think I want this thing, but I’d prefer what’s good for me; please don’t give it to me if it’s not good for me! It’s why we ask for a good and sweet New Year – שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה – because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet. God can grant our desires and save us from them when they are the very thing that ends up hurting us – רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם. Sometimes the thing we need saving from is ourselves!
We don’t really know how prayer “works,” just that we do it, and sometimes things work out just the way we hope! It’s the ultimate tool in our arsenal and features prominently in our traditions. But we’re just children playing games on a board far bigger than any of us can fathom, and we have no real clue what’s truly best for us.