Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Vayetze 5764\ December 6, 2003
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.
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Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Vayetze 5764\ December 6, 2003
The Power of Prayer
Rabbi Ophir Cohen
In this parasha we see Jacob in two seemingly contradictory modes: at the
beginning of the parasha he prays, and according to our sages he also
establishes the evening prayer - the word vayifga in the sentence
"He came (vayifga) upon a certain place" (Gen. 28:11) is understood
as 'to approach the Almighty (makom) in prayer. Yet in the continuation we
meet him behaving in a seemingly hurtful way, which in modern Hebrew we would
express as "in a way that is poge'a": "When Rachel saw
that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and
Rachel said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die'. Jacob was
incensed at Rachel and said: 'Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied
you fruit of the womb?'" (Gen. 30:1-2).
We have here a very sharp confrontation between Jacob and his
beloved wife Rachel, she towards him and he towards her. Our sages in fact
condemn Jacob's behavior in this case:
"The Holy One blessed be He said to him: Is this the way to answer a woman
who is oppressed by her barrenness? By your life. Your children are destined
to stand [in trepidation] before her son Joseph".
The commentators deliberated at length in their attempts to
understand Jacob's anger and his reply to Rachel. Some, referring to the
phrase "she had borne Jacob no children" (ibid.) explained that
Rachel made the issue contingent on Jacob's worthiness, therefore he is
the one who must pray. Thus the
And this teaches that she thought that she had not borne
children because he was not worthy of establishing his continuity through her.
Even though he had other children and therefore it appears that she is the one
who was not worthy, nevertheless was not she alone his most important wife?
And if so, he was the unworthy one and it was necessary for him to perform an
act of great sacrifice that would make him worthy.
Some referred to the question of whether the fact that
"the Holy One blessed be He loves best the prayer of
applies only in the Holy Land,
or in foreign lands as well, as stated by the Shalah, Rabbi Isaiah ben Abraham
And this was the situation in the past in Israel. The Holy
One blessed be He was very desirous of the prayers of Israel, and therefore the
patriarchs and matriarchs were barren - so that they would pray
(Yebamot 64a). And this was in the Holy Land, because there G-d wants
prayer...and indeed one should wonder what was this anger toward Rachel, for
indeed Rachel in saying "Give me children" was making a fair
request, because her intention was that he should pray for her, since G-d
brought about this situation precisely because He desired their prayer. Jacob
was certainly aware of this, and if so, what made him angry?
But the fact is that Jacob said to Rachel "who has
denied you fruit of the womb", in other words the meaning is not
that you are barren because He desires prayer, but that the reason lies in
Rachel herself, her barrenness being a punishment for something. Jacob said to
Rachel, Do not say that it is because He was desirous of prayer, because this is
relevant only for those residing in the Land of Israel that is G-d's
portion, but we are presently in a foreign land.
Even after reading this answer the big problem remains -
why does Jacob not pray for Rachel? Do not our Sages teach
Rabbi Pinchas Bar-Hama said:
"Whoever has a sick person in his home should go to the wise man and ask
for compassion"? The problem only becomes more acute when we see Jacob at
the beginning of the parasha establishing the evening
because each of the patriarchs
established a different prayer in accordance with his particular character, each
in a different style of prayer: Abraham "calling in the name of
G-d", Isaac "conversing", Jacob "touching"
), and Jacob had the particular ability to pray in difficult
situations, as Rabbi Zadok Ha-Cohen
And later when evening shadows fall and it begins to get dark,
which is the opposite of the comforting light, and Man sees that he has not yet
achieved complete salvation [he prays minha]... then in the night at the
time of total darkness when he sees that even after his second prayer he has
still not yet been answered with complete salvation, but on the contrary, things
are going from bad to worse...it is then that the special quality of our
patriarch Jacob, may he rest in peace, comes forth...and this is the prayer in
the night, at the time of total darkness, after he has not been answered twice
even though he approached G-d in fear and love and with a broken heart, he must
persist with his entreaty as one who "touches the Almighty"
(poge'a) until he cannot fail to receive a response ...as if he has
touched [G-d] and does not want to return and depart from Him until he is
answered, as if he held onto His coat and said, I will not desist from
How then could it be that Jacob, whose unceasing prayer is
presented in terms of "pegi'ah" did not respond to
Rachel's request and did not pray? On the contrary, he seems to be causing
her emotional pain (poge'a)! Where is his trust in the power of
However, we need to see these two patterns of Jacob's
behavior not as contradictory but as complementary.
explains the depth of Jacob's
intention. Certainly Jacob loves Rachel and certainly he wants to have children
with her just as she does, and clearly he does not want to hurt her. But he who
knows to establish prayer for times of suffering, for the night hours, has one
specific purpose in mind: Prayer in such difficult times must be offered by the
person himself. Nahmanides puts it as follows:
Give me children: But I wonder, why was Jacob angry
with her? And why did he say, "Am I in G-d's stead?" For G-d
hearkens to the righteous. And how could Jacob say [to Rachel... "My]
father had no children at all [when he prayed], but I already have children. It
must be from you that He had withheld children and not from me"-- do not
the righteous pray on behalf of others? Elijah and Elisha prayed on behalf of
strange women (I Kings 17:21; II Kings 4:17).
It appears that on account of Jacob's answer, our Rabbis
took him to task, saying in Bereshit Rabba (71,7): The Holy One blessed
be He, said to Jacob: "Is this the way to answer a woman who is oppressed
by her barrenness? By your life. Your children are destined to stand before
her son Joseph!"
[This is the Midrash, but] In line with the plain meaning of
Scripture, Rachel asked of Jacob that he give her children, but her intent was
truly to say that he should pray on her behalf and continue to pray until G-d
would, in any case, grant her children, and if not, she would die out of grief.
In her envy she spoke improperly, thinking that because Jacob loved her he would
fast, put on sackcloth with ashes, and pray until she would have children, so
that she should not die of her grief. For this reason,
"Jacob's anger was kindled", for it is not in the power of
the righteous that their prayer be heard and answered in any case... Now the
righteous woman Rachel, seeing that she could not rely on Jacob's prayer,
then went to pray on her own behalf ... and this is the meaning of the verse
"And G-d hearkened to her" (30:22).
When Rachel depends on Jacob to pray for her, then her
kavanah (intention in prayer) will be less intent, but once she is aware
that she can expect no succor from a human, even if she was hurt by
Jacob's sharp response, she can then pray with great intention and press
the Lord of the Universe to fulfill her prayer. And indeed it is this prayer,
from the depths of her heart, that is heard and granted.
(Vilna) Parasha 71, 7 "And Jacob was
Perush Ha'ameq Davar
 Sefer Shne Luhot
ha-Berit, Parashat Va-Yetze
 Zidkat Ha-Zadik
Nahmanides on Gen.