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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Parashat Vayetze 5764\ December 6, 2003

The Power of Prayer

Rabbi Ophir Cohen
Kfar Darom

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:[1] "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 Netsiv:[2]

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 mothers"[3] applies only in the Holy Land, or in foreign lands as well, as stated by the Shalah, Rabbi Isaiah ben Abraham Ha-Levi Horowitz:[4]

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 us:[5] 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 prayer,[6] 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" (vayifga), and Jacob had the particular ability to pray in difficult situations, as Rabbi Zadok Ha-Cohen describes:[7]

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 You.

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 prayer?!
However, we need to see these two patterns of Jacob's behavior not as contradictory but as complementary. Nahmanides[8] 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.

[1] Bereshit Rabba (Vilna) Parasha 71, 7 "And Jacob was incensed".
[2] Perush Ha'ameq Davar, Gen.30:1.
[3] Yebamot 64a.
[4] Sefer Shne Luhot ha-Berit, Parashat Va-Yetze
[5] Baba Batra 116a.
[6] Berahot 26b.
[7] Zidkat Ha-Zadik, 222.
[8] Nahmanides on Gen. 30:1.