I wondered what it was like for Yitzchak and Rivkah to bare their souls before the Almighty in their hopes of having a child. Yitzchak pleaded with G-d opposite his wife (or perhaps, as Rashbam translates, for his wife’s sake) for she was barren. G-d granted his plea, and his wife Rivkah became pregnant.
Perhaps in the repetition of the word “ishto” there’s a subtle hint of a generational difference. While Avraham was eventually agreeable to the idea that he could have a child from another woman, this was not an option for Yitzchak. He wanted the child to come from his wife Rivkah.
The midrash explains that his prayer was more worthy than hers because he was a tsaddik ben tsaddik, the righteous product of righteous parents. Does this mean her prayer was worthless? How could it be that the prayer of someone who has unrighteous parents is worthless?
The midrash Sechel Tov suggests that her barrenness was a response to the blessing of her family when she left, those who told her to be a mother of a multitude of descendants — the fact that she is childless for 20 years demonstrates that their blessing was worthless. Her children were born on account of her husband’s prayer.
That’s no justification for her personal suffering! 20 years of infertility, just so her brother wouldn’t get the credit of his blessing coming true? Troubling!
There is an interesting theory in the rabbinosphere about why the Foremothers were all barren until prayer or a blessing opened their wombs. The Talmud (Yebamot 64) says simply that G-d wanted their “prayers of the righteous.”
Rabbenu Bechaya notes from here that the prayers of the righteous have the power to change nature. And the proof is from the specific word the Torah uses, “va’ye’etar,” whose root references a farming tool which overturns grain. This prayer was to overturn G-d’s decree. (Paroh uses the same language to Moshe four times, perhaps for obvious reasons.) He then gives specific reasons for the barrenness of each of the mothers.
Sarah was barren so that Yishmael would be born. She was barren to open the door for her name to change. Sarai was barren but Sarah was not.
Rivkah was barren for 20 years so that Eisav would not have the chance to rebel in Avraham’s lifetime. For Avraham to “come to his fathers in peace,” Eisav’s birth needed to be delayed 20 years.
Rachel was barren so that Bilhah and Zilpah would be put into a position from which they could produce Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher.
Which leaves us to answer the question of how the prayers of a righteous child of righteous parents has more merit than a righteous child of wicked parents?
The Slonimer Rebbe says, you’re looking at it wrong, it doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Prayer — tefillah and kavvanah — requires one to demonstrate the quality of being extremely humble, especially before the Almighty. Someone who comes from an unclean background has a very easy time humbling oneself. “G-d. I know I’ve done bad things in my life. I know I come from parents who were sinful. So I am undeserving. But, here I am.”
It’s pretty easy to be a realist in that kind of situation. But a tzaddik ben tzaddik? “G-d. I’m a good person. My parents were good people. So I’m not really sure why I’m having this difficult time in my life. Here I am.”
It is much harder for such a person to humble oneself and say, “I am nothing. My background is worth nothing. Everything I’ve done in my life is meaningless before you. So here I am, asking for something I don’t deserve to get.”
The Meshech Chokhma says that Yitzchak knew he was going to have a child — it was promised to him by G-d through the blessing to Avraham. Since he knew he was not the problem, as Chizkuni notes, he didn’t need to pray for himself — so he prayed for her. And of course Rivkah also wanted a child. But many who describe her prayer explain it as her saying she only wants a child with HIM — so she prayed for her husband to be the father of her children.
Prayer is sometimes selfish. But more often it’s selfless. I’m praying for the other person. I’m looking out for my family, my friends. And I am humbling myself so that G-d can see that I am sincere.
Davening is only meaningful if it is a serious endeavor. And as we learn from the Slonimer Rebbe, the more one humbles oneself, the more powerful the davening is.
This is our challenge when we come to shul. To daven like Yitzchak and Rivkah. To have our priorities clear and correct. Those of us who have a spouse should pray for our spouse. Those of us who have children, should pray for our children. Those who have grandchildren or greatgrandchildren, should be very busy in the synagogue — praying for each and every one of them.
And those of us who have no family have a community. Pray for our community, locally and globally. Pray for the people of Israel, that we should experience peace and prosperity and the continued opportunity to enjoy life with family, friends, communities and, most humbly, with our G-d.