Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5768/ November 10, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Power of Prayer


Dr. Yair Barkai




This week’s reading opens with the announcement that Rebecca was barren. She then conceived following Isaac’s prayers (Gen. 25:20-21): [1]

Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.  Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived.

The Torah does not go into detail and tells us nothing about the years Rebecca spent barren, save for the fact that Isaac prayed for her.  We learn about the span of years she had been barren from the concluding sentence:  “Isaac was sixty years old when they were born” (Gen. 25:26).  As we know, these gaps in information have been filled in by legends of the Sages.  Below we shall examine several legends that with great sensitivity fill in the missing details in the complex of relations between Rebecca and Isaac, and between the two of them and the Lord.

Rebecca’s righteousness stood out in the context of her origins and family background (Rashi on verse 25) and equaled that of her husband Isaac (Midrash ha-Gaddol on Genesis, p. 389, par. 432).   After some twenty years of barrenness, she turned to Isaac and, according to the legend, addressed him as follows: [2]

Rebekah besought her husband to entreat God for the gift of children, as his father Abraham had done. At first Isaac would not do her bidding. God had promised Abraham a numerous progeny, and he thought their childlessness was probably Rebekah’s fault, and it was her duty to supplicate God, and not his. But Rebekah would not desist, and husband and wife repaired to Mount Moriah together to pray to God there.

And Isaac said: “O Lord God of heaven and earth, whose goodness and mercies fill the earth, Thou who didst take my father from his father’s house and from his birthplace, and didst bring him unto this land, and didst say unto him, To thee and thy seed I will give the land, and didst promise him and declare unto him, I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the sea, now may Thy words be verified which Thou didst speak unto my father. For Thou art the Lord our God, our eyes are toward Thee, to give us seed of men as Thou didst promise us, for Thou art the Lord our God, and our eyes are upon Thee.”

Rebecca tried to encourage herself and her husband especially by relying on the precedent of Sarah, who finally conceived in her old age after years without a child; but Isaac put the blame for their condition on Rebecca. [3]   In the midrash, Rebecca’s reaction stands out against Isaac’s harsh stance in its restraint, assurance, and belief in the power of prayer.  The midrash does not tell us whether Isaac had gone to seek the Lord on Mount Moriah since his binding there, but the fact that he now chose to go there with Rebecca to pour out their hearts is the way in which the midrash expresses the intensity of Isaac’s distress and the sanctity of Mount Moriah, in the wake of the Akedah that occurred there.

According to the midrash, Isaac’s appeal to G-d relied on the tests that his father faced and on the promise of offspring which G-d had made him several times, especially after the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:17).  Isaac was asking G-d to make good on that promise now.  For all that there is an assertive tone at the beginning of the prayer, the conclusion of the prayer is striking in its tone of supplication, expressing utter dependence on the Lord:  for Thou art the Lord our God, and our eyes are upon Thee.” The midrash we cited from Ginzberg does not give us the details of Rebecca’s prayer, but Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis (25:22, p. 435) does: [4]

Rebecca said to the Holy One, blessed be He:  Lord of the Universe, is there anything that You created in Man to no purpose?   You gave us eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak, a heart to understand, hands to touch, feet to walk, and teats – what are they for if not to suckle?  And having no son to suckle, it is as if they were created for nought!

Rebecca’s trenchant argument is equivalent to that of Hannah in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 31b), and indeed the midrash associates the one with the other, except that Hannah added:

And she made this vow:   “O Lord of Hosts.”   Rabbi Eliezer said:   from the day the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, not a soul had called the Holy One, blessed be He, “Lord of Hosts” until Hannah did so.  Hannah entreated the Holy One, blessed be He:   Lord of the Universe!   Of all the hosts of hosts that You created in Your world, is it so very difficult for You to give me a single son?!

To what may this be compared?  To a king of flesh and blood who made a feast for his servants.  Along came a poor person and stood at the door and said to the guests:   Give me just one slice of bread!   They paid him no heed, so he pushed his way in, reaching the king.  He said to him:  My liege the king, of this entire feast that you made, is it so hard for you to give me one slice of bread?!

Rashi interprets verse 21 in the light of what is said in the gemara (Yevamot 84a):  And the Lord responded to his plea – to him, not to her; for the prayer of a righteous person, descended of a righteous person, is not like the prayer of a righteous person, descended of a wicked person; hence He responded to him and not to her.”  Midrash ha-Gadol presents a different view (ibid., p. 433):   And the Lord responded to his plea – to his prayer; and his wife Rebecca conceived – to her prayer.”   According to this view, indeed they both prayed, as Rashi wrote (based on Genesis Rabbah, 63.5):   On behalf of  [Heb. le-nohah, more literally:  in the presence of] his wife – he stood in one corner and prayed, and she stood in another corner and prayed.”

The midrash teaches us that there was another joint request in their prayers:  “He said to the Holy One, blessed be He:  Lord of the Universe! May all the sons the You will give me be from this righteous woman; and she prayed likewise.” [5]   This request reveals the beautiful aspect of their marital relationship – each of them recognized the virtues of their partner and neither was willing to give up the other’s part in their offspring; so the Lord answered each of their prayers individually.

After conceiving, Scripture tells us that Rebecca prayed again:  “But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord” (Gen. 25:22).  On the face of it, Rebecca’s inquiry seems strange.  After many long years of waiting to conceive from Isaac and finally having had the Lord answer their prayers, how is it that she found her pregnancy beyond bearing?  This has been discussed by many commentators. [6]   We shall focus on Nahmanides’ discussion, in which he cites Rashi and Ibn Ezra:

And she said, “If so, why am I?” – if the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I pray and long to conceive?   So Rashi interprets, but this is not correct.  Rabbi Abraham [ibn Ezra] said that she had asked other women if they had experienced the same as she, and they had answered her no; so she said:  “If so” – if that is the usual way, without pain, “why am I experiencing this” – why is my pregnancy different?  According to this interpretation, the verse is incomplete and must be supplemented.

Hence the correct reading, in my eyes, is that she said:  “If thus it will be for me, why do I exist in the world; would that I were not, that I would die or not exist,” in the same way that it says in Job (10:19):  “Had I been as though I never was.”

She went to inquire of the Lord – according to Rashi, that He tell her what would be of her in the end.   But I have found that inquiring of the Lord (derisha) is used only in the sense of praying, as in “I turned to the Lord, and He answered me” (Ps. 34:5), “Seek me, and you will live” (Amos 5:4), “As I live, I will not respond to your inquiry” (Ezek. 20:3).

Nahmanides understood Rebecca’s emotional state, struggling with the plight of a difficult pregnancy. Rebecca returned to pray to G-d because of true hardship and not because of ingratefulness or defeatism.   According to him, Rebecca did not seek to reveal what lay in store for the future, rather she was praying to the Lord either to help her pull through the plight she was in, or to deliver her from it by death.

The Lord’s response indicates that even this time, as well, He responded favorably to her sincere prayer, and He encouraged her by giving her tidings of the twins she was carrying in order to explain her condition and plight to her.

Observe how mighty is prayer in the eyes of the Rabbis, that Rabbi Isaac taught (Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis, p. 433):   “Why were our ancestors childless?   Because the Holy One, blessed be He, yearns for the prayers of the righteous.”

[1] For a literary analysis of the subject, see Dr. Yael Shemesh, “Holedet Ya’akov ve-Esav,” Mi-Perot ha-Ilan, Ramat Gan 1998, pp. 78-80.

[2] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, I, Philadelphia: JPS, 1942, p. 312, based on Sefer ha-Yashar.

[3] Yevamot 64a says that both of them were infertile.  Similarly, Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis, Toledot, p. 432:  Because she was barren (Gen.25:21) – it is written hu [=he] but is read hi [= she], indicating that they were both barren.”

[4] Edited, as far as we know, by Rabbi David ben-Amram, Eden, Yemen, in the 13th or 14th century.

[5] The midrash ascribes similar requests to Hannah and Ruth (Midrash Shemuel, ch. 6.3).

[6] Also cf. Leah Frankel, Perakim be-Mikra, Jerusalem 1981, pp. 37-38.