Rachel Emeinu and the power of personal prayer


Our parashaVayetze, focuses on Rachel Emeinu and the intense psychological pain and suffering that resulted from her inability to bear children: “And Rachel saw that she had not borne [any children] to Jacob, and Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, and if not, I am dead’.” (Bereishit 30:1).

Rashi, basing himself upon the midrash, explains the somewhat unusual phrase, “give me children,” as meaning, “Did your father [not] do that for your mother? Did he not pray for her?” In other words, Rachel pleaded with Jacob to pray to the Almighty on her behalf, just as his father, Isaac, had done for his mother, Rebecca, when she failed to conceive. 

Rachel, however, did not receive the response from Jacob she sought. Although the Torah informs us that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah,” he responded to her in what appears to be a harsh manner: “And Jacob became angry with Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I instead of G-d, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb’?” (30:2)

Rashi explains the content of Jacob’s words in the following fashion: “Am I instead of G-d: Am I in His place? Who has withheld from you: You say that I should do as my father did. I am not like my father. My father had no sons [at the time he prayed], but I have sons. [It is thus apparent that] He has withheld [children] from you, not from me.

Finally, after waiting for what must have felt like an interminable number of years, Rachel was blessed with her own child: “And G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d hearkened to her (vayishmah aleah Elokim), and He opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son, and she said, “G-d has taken away my reproach.” So she named him Joseph, saying, “May the L-rd grant me yet another son!” (30:22-24)

Rashi interprets the phrase, “And G-d remembered Rachel,” as referring to her kindness in telling her sister, Leah, the secret signs between herself and Jacob, to spare Leah untold disgrace on her wedding night. Rashi does not, however, explain the expression, “vayishmah aleah Elokim,” which may literally be translated as, “and G-d listened to her.” This leads us to ask, “To what did G-d listen?” We are fortunate that some of the great thinkers of Judaism applied themselves to this question.

Onkelos translates and interprets, “vayishmah aleah Elokim,” as “v’kabill tzelotah Hashem,” i.e. “and Hashem accepted her prayers.” The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) follows Onkelos’ approach and notes, “She [Rachel] engaged in a great deal of prayer [before the Almighty].” The Malbim (Rav Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser) continues in Onkelos’ footsteps, and formulates his interpretation in a highly nuanced fashion, “for now (“ki atah”) she [Rachel] prayed.” As noted earlier, when Rachel beseeched Jacob to “give me children,” she was actually asking him to pray to Hashem on her behalf, just as Isaac had done for Rebecca. Suddenly, like a beam of light that pierces the darkest night, Rachel realized that she was the one who needed to pray, and that now was the time to directly encounter the Almighty through tefilah. By so doing, she taught a vital lesson that was followed many years later by the childless Hannah when she, too, came before Hashem in profound and heartfelt prayer:

“And Hannah arose after eating and after drinking, and Eli the priest was sitting on the chair beside the doorpost of the Temple of the L-rd. And she was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to the L-rd, and wept. And she vowed a vow, and said: to L-rd of Hosts, if You will look upon the affliction of Your bondswoman, and You will remember me, and You will not forget Your bondswoman and You will give Your bondswoman a man-child, and I shall give him to the L-rd all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. And it was, as she prayed long before the L-rd, that Eli watched her mouth. But Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, and her voice was not heard, and Eli thought her to be a drunken woman.” (Shmuel I: 9-13) 

As we know, Hannah was anything but a drunken woman. Instead, as she herself professed to Eli, “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and neither new wine nor old wine have I drunk, and I poured out my soul before the L-rd.” (Shmuel I:15) In sum, Hannah was an intensely spiritual being who, like her mentor Rachel, recognized the power of personal prayer and its potential to burst through the very gates of heaven.

May the Almighty give us the strength and wisdom to daven to Him from the depths of our being, so that with Rachel and Hannah as our guides, we, too, may, “pour out our souls before the L-rd.” V’chane yihi ratzon.

Rabbi David Etengoff is a columnist for The Jewish Star.

Correction: This week's parsha, referenced in this column, is Vayetze. An editing error in print, and originally online, incorrectly referenced parsha Toldot.