Parshat Toldot: The Misconceptions of Prayer

“And Yitzchak prayed for his wife because she was barren and Hashem answered him and Rivka his wife conceived.” (Beresheit 25:21)

This passage is the first instance in which the Torah explicitly makes reference to prayer. Rivka was childless and Yitzchak prayed to Hashem and asked that they be given children. This incident clearly illustrates the efficacy of prayer. However, in everyday life the effectiveness of prayer is far less evident. So many prayers seem to go unanswered! Must one be a tzaddik like Yitzcahk in order to merit Hashem’s attention? Can more common people realistically hope that their prayers will be heard?

In order to respond to this difficult issue we must begin by analyzing and correcting two fundamental misunderstandings regarding prayer.

Many people wonder why Hashem does not answer all of our prayers. After all, Hashem is merciful and He is omnipotent. He has the power to grant all of our requests. Since this is the case, why does He not simply grant any petition that is sincerely expressed? Remember Tevyah – the poor dairyman in The Fiddler on the Roof? Tevyah struggles in his poverty and asks this simple question. Would it interfere with some grand scheme of the Almighty, if he were a wealthy man? Tevyah wonders what difference it would make to Hashem if he were relieved from the burden of his poverty. Certainly, there is no reason of cosmic importance that dictates that he should suffer! Why does Hashem not just grant him wealth? Let us consider whether Tevyah is asking a valid question.

How does Tevyah see the world? He sees the events of this world as an infinite collection of unrelated choices made by the Almighty. The Almighty made him poor and the Almighty can make him wealthy. Certainly, to the Almighty it makes little difference whether Tevyah is rich or poor. So, Tevyah asks, “Why does Hashem not make me wealthy?” But is this world view correct?

Nachmanides explains that one of the foundations of the Torah is that Hashem performs subtle, invisible miracles. When we think of miracles, we often recall the wonders described in the Torah – the splitting of the Reed Sea, the manna in the desert. However, Nachmanides explains that these overt wonders represent only a portion of the miracles that Hashem performs. Far more common are the less visible subtle miracles that He performs. In fact, these subtle miracles are fundamental to the Torah. The Torah tells us that we will be blessed for righteousness and punished for evil. This assurance is predicated on the assumption that the Almighty performs these subtle miracles. What is a blessing? A blessing is some material benefit that is accrued as a reward for acting righteously. Inherit in this concept is that this material benefit was not destined to occur. A blessing is a benefit that is not destined to occur but results from acting righteously. Nachmanides applies the same reasoning to punishments. The Torah describes material punishments that we will experience if we violate Hashem’s will. These punishments are not destined to occur. Instead, the Almighty interferes with destiny in order to punish evil.

Now, let us analyze Nachmanides comments a little more carefully. Nachmanides asserts that there is a concept of destiny that normally guides events in this world. Hashem sometimes interferes with this destiny in order to bless or punish us. But what is this destiny? Apparently, Nachmanides maintains that the material world is guided by physical laws. In general, these laws determine events in this world. When Hashem blesses or punishes us, He interferes with these laws. Nachmanides contention is that a miracle is a breach in the natural order. If this is so, then every time Hashem bestows a blessing or punishes us, He is performing a miracle. We may not be able to see this subtle miracle, but nonetheless it is there.

It is notable that Nachmanides maintains that the very concept of a miracle implies that there is a normal, natural order. There could not be a concept of miracle, without the complementary concept of natural law. If there is not natural law, then what is a miracle? This is because the very definition of a miracle is a breach in the natural order.

“For when I contemplate Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars that you set in place – then what is the human being that You should have him in mind or mortal man that You should take note of him.” (Tehilim 8:4-5)

When Hashem formed the universe, He created a system of natural laws to guide its activities and processes. It is His will that these laws determine events in this world. He only interferes with these laws in order to bestow a blessing or carry out a punishment. This means that Tevyah is quite wrong! Hashem created the physical laws that have conspired to condemn Tevyah to poverty. Tevyah assumes that the only issue at stake in his petition is whether he should be rich or poor. This is not the case. There is something much more profound at stake. Should the laws that Hashem created and wills to guide events in this world be abrogated? In other words, should Hashem “compromise” His will on behalf of Tevyah? When the question is phrased this way, it is not as obvious that Hashem should make Tevyah wealthy.

Let us now relate this to prayer. When we pray to Hashem, we are asking Him to perform one of His subtle miracles. Someone is sick. We pray for the person’s recovery. We assume that without Hashem’s help this recovery may not occur. We are asking Hashem to interfere in the laws He created and wishes to govern the world. Like Tevyah, we are asking for Hashem to “compromise” His will!

This raises a question. If every prayer is a request for a miracle and every miracle represents some “compromise” of Hashem’s will, then how can we expect any prayer to be answered? In truth, this is the real wonder of prayer! Although the more common question is why do prayers seem to go unanswered, the more reasonable question is why does Hashem ever respond to our petitions? Why should He “compromise” His will for us?

This idea is expressed by King David in the passage above. Hashem is the creator and master of the entire universe. Yet, Hashem cares for and provides for humanity. He even suspends the natural order that He created in order to benefit humanity! How different David’s attitude is from ours. We ask why Hashem does not answer all of our prayers. David asks why Hashem should have any concern with our needs!

This brings us to the second popular misunderstanding regarding prayer. What is a prayer? It is generally assumed that a prayer is a sincere petition and that the more sincere the supplication, the more likely Hashem will respond. Based on this understanding of prayer, it follows that everyone can pray effectively. Anyone can sincerely appeal to Hashem to satisfy one’s needs. But let us seek a definition of prayer from the Torah.

A study of the Torah’s treatment of Avraham provides no instances in which Avraham overtly prayed to Hashem. However, the Sages maintain that Avraham did pray and that at least two of his prays are explicitly recorded in the Torah. In the first instance Hashem, promises Avraham that He will reward him for his righteousness. Avraham protests. He has no children. What is the value of the reward Hashem will bestow upon him, if he does not have offspring? In response, Hashem promises Avraham that he will have children and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.[1] Our Sages describe this conversation between Avraham and Hashem as an instance of Avraham praying.[2] But this conversation does not seem to be a prayer. Instead, it seems that Avraham is debating with Hashem. Rather than presenting himself as a supplicant, Avraham seems to challenge Hashem.

There is another conversation between Hashem and Avraham that our Sages identified as prayer.[3] Hashem tells Avraham that He will destroy Sedom. Avraham protests. He argues that there may be innocents among the people of Sedom. How can the Hashem destroy the innocent with the wicked? This is not justice![4] Again, this does not seem to be a prayer. Instead, Avraham seems to be engaged in a debate. He argues with Hashem and urges Him to do justice. Why did our Sages regard these two instances as examples of prayer?

Clearly, the Sages did not define prayer as the act of a supplicant petitioning Hashem. Apparently, prayer need not even involve supplication. A different definition of prayer emerges from these examples. In each, Avraham is stating request accompanied by an argument for granting the request. Apparently, prayer need not involve supplication but it must include an argument favoring the granting of the request. Also, in both instances Avraham offers similar arguments. He contends that Hashem’s will will be fulfilled on a higher level if his request is fulfilled. If Hashem grants him children, then His promises of reward will far more meaningful. If Hashem spares the innocent in destroying Sedom, then humanity will recognize Hashem’s justice. In other words, we do not emphasize our needs as much as we express the desire to see Hashem’s will fulfilled in the most complete manner. We petition Hashem by demonstrating our devotion to Him!

Let us consider another example of prayer in the Torah. Bnai Yisrael created and worshiped the Egel – the golden calf. Moshe prayed to Hashem to spare Bnai Yisrael. What was Moshe’s prayer? Again, we find that it included an argument. What will the Egyptians say? They will say that Hashem took Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt just to destroy them in the wilderness. Moshe argues that the will of Hashem will be fulfilled on a higher level through sparing Bnai Yisrael.

Our own prayers follow this same pattern. Let us consider the Amidah – the central prayer of the service. We ask Hashem for health, redemption, forgiveness and so many other blessings. But in each instance we make an argument. Forgive us because it is Your nature to forgive and forbear. Redeem us because You are a mighty redeemer. Heal us because You are a trustworthy healer and merciful. In each case, we appeal to Hashem to reveal Himself. We do not emphasize ourselves, we emphasize Hashem. In asking Hashem for His help, we are expressing our devotion to Him.

If we accept our Sages understanding of prayer, it emerges that it is not as easy as is imagined to offer sincere prayer. Yes, it is easy to be sincere in asking for one’s personal needs to be fulfilled. But it is not as easy to frame one’s request as an act of devotion to Hashem.

Through this understanding of prayer we can begin to answer David’s question. We cannot completely understand Hashem’s concern with humanity. However, a partial explanation emerges. We do not ask Hashem to compromise His will in our behalf. How can we expect Hashem to alter His universe for us? Instead, we ask Hashem to act towards fulfilling a higher objective. We ask Him to interfere with the natural order in order to reveal Himself.

[1] Sefer Beresheit 9:1-6.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 16:5.

[3] Mesechet Berachot 26b.

[4] Sefer Beresheit 18:20-33.