PARASHAT TOLDOT: Isaac – The praying patriarch

Every patriarch and matriarch had a unique story and way of coping with their infertility.

November 8, 2018 00:32
3 minute read.
PARASHAT TOLDOT: Isaac – The praying patriarch

‘BY READING this carefully and sensitively, the reader finds the compassionate and gentle image of Isaac and grasps the reason God answers his prayer: “…and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”’. (photo credit: TNS)


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Last week, we finished reading about the lives of Abraham and Sarah. In Toldot, we move on to the second generation of patriarchs and matriarchs: Isaac and Rebekah. Anyone reading these portions immediately notices two opposite phenomena. On the one hand, all the patriarchs and matriarchs have their own special personality and unique life path that is expressed in the special way they contribute to the establishment of the Jewish nation. Thus, Abraham represents loving- kindness and faith; Isaac represents security and settlement in the land, and so forth. On the other hand, there are certain parallel lines that repeat themselves in all three generations. For example, they all deal with famine, or another example with which this week’s Torah portion begins, each generation deals with infertility. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all dealt with infertility and were able to bear children only after many years of trying.

However: Did Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel deal with their infertility in the same way? Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deal with their wives’ infertility in the same way? The answer is – absolutely not. Every patriarch and matriarch had a unique story and way of coping with their infertility. In this week’s Torah portion, we read a short description of the way Isaac and Rebekah coped:

“And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren” (Genesis 25:21).

Isaac turns to God in prayer. What is special about the prayer is that it is recited “opposite his wife.” Simply, this means that Isaac prayed for Rebekah, not for himself. According to this commentary by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (a rabbi, doctor, and philosopher, Italy, 16th century), Isaac himself was not in distress since he had faith in God’s promise to Abraham that Isaac would continue in establishing the nation. Isaac had no doubt that he would have children, sooner or later. What Isaac did not know was whether these promised children were going to come from Rebekah or from another wife. Rebekah, however, was in distress. Therefore, Isaac’s prayer was not for himself as much as for his wife, Rebekah.

The great biblical commentator Rashi (France, 11th century) speaks of this verse and describes this prayer of Isaac’s as one of a couple:

“Opposite his wife: This one (Isaac) was standing in this corner and praying, and that one (Rebekah) was standing in that corner and praying.”

Another commentator, Radak (a grammarian and commentator, Provence, 13th century) added another layer of meaning to the picture Rashi paints:

“He prayed in the presence of his wife so that he would be better able to concentrate on her problem.”

According to most commentators, Isaac prayed for his wife, not for himself, and he did so when standing near her, looking at her, feeling sorry for her and praying from the depths of his heart.

By reading this carefully and sensitively, the reader finds the compassionate and gentle image of Isaac and grasps the reason God answers his prayer. “…and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”

It is interesting to discover that even at Isaac’s and Rebekah’s very first meeting, before they were married, the sages of the midrash say that Isaac was busy praying. Isaac – in all his appearances in the Bible – doesn’t speak much, but he is good at empathizing with others, like Rebekah, and doing what he knows how to do – which is to pray.

When a person prays from a place of compassion and caring for someone else – that is the kind of prayer God answers.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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