risis-Tefila-Solution? – Rav Shames
Our parsha opens with a very unique picture of a tefila situation. Yitzchak and Rivka are unable to have children and they plead with God about the matter. God answers them positively. It is such a nice story with a wonderful happy ending, yet at the same time a very problematic episode in an educational sense. The story is just too good – if only things were so simple – “crisis-tefila-solution”. As anyone over the age of five knows, it often does not happen this way.
As a matter of fact this is not just our own contemporary experience with prayer but we find it as well with the Avot. A classic example – Avraham pleaded on behalf of Sdom and his request was refused. The special, almost automatic, positive response to Yitzchak and Rivka is a topic that the commentaries have been trying to explain for many years. In this week’s shiur I would like to share some thoughts about tefila that stem from two Midrashim quoted by Rashi.
Rashi points to two factors, the importance of which are hinted at in a simple reading of the text. First of all, the verb used in this case, VAYE’ETAR, is peculiar. It hardly appears at all in the Torah and its use in this context bothers Rashi. He explains that the term indicates an overabundance of prayer. The prayer was not as it seems in the passuk where it appears to have taken a fleeting moment and was then answered. Rather the prayer was long and elaborate. If we examine the surrounding verses I think we have a good support for this idea. We are told that Yitzchak was married at age 40 and, 6 pessukim later, we are told that he was 60 years old when the children were born. Those six pessukim which we read in 20 seconds took 20 years and the message the Torah is giving us is that the main thing that happened during that time was tefila. This idea is expressed by the gemara in Brachot (32b); “If a person has prayed and has not been answered he should pray again!”
The second element that Rashi notes is that the Torah says that he (Yitzchak) was answered. Rashi explains that despite the fact that both of them were praying, God answered Yitzchak’s prayer, due to the fact that he is a tzadik the son of a tzadik while Rivka was a tzadika but she was the daughter of an evil person.
While this seems to be a great compliment to Yitzchak, it leaves us with a strange feeling. Is it really true that God is more interested in, and therefore is more likely to answer, the teffilot of the son of a tzadik than those of less flattering pedigree? The Torah Temima, in his commentary on the parsha, points to a very interesting debate amongst the poskim on this issue. The Maharshal felt that this was enough of a reason to limit our choice of shaliach tzibur for any standard tefila. He writes that one should make sure to choose an individual who is not only exemplary in his own right but we need to investigate the worthiness of his father as well. On the other hand the Taz felt that an individual should be judged on his own merit and one’s tefila should be the only factor looked into.
While it seems that the Torah Temima is more sympathetic to the position of the Taz he is bothered by the lack of source material standing behind the position of the Taz and offers the following story as possible support for this position. The Gemara in Taanit reports that once during a tefila gathering during a drought Rabbi Eliezer served as the shaliach tzibur and they were not answered, however when Rabbi Akiva made an attempt they were answered. The crowd began to start rumors that clearly Rabbi Akiva was a greater man that Rabbi Eliezer, until a voice was heard and declared that it was not due to Rabbi Akiva’s “elevated status” that merited his being listened to but rather it was due to the fact that Rabbi Akiva was a very humble man and would always submit to those around him.
According to the Torah Temima this proves the point of the Taz. We find in other places in the Gemara that Rabbi Akiva did not come from solid stock, and for this reason he was not appointed as head of the Academy after the removal of Rabban Gamliel. Nonetheless it was his teffilot that were answered because of his exemplary personality traits. We can see from here that there is more to tefila that just lineage.
On this point I would like to make two observations. Firstly this may explain why we open each and every one of our teffilot with the bracha of Avot. At first glance it seems to be a very peculiar introduction to tefila. What is the relevance of the origins of Jewish History to my present day tefila? Possibly we may be trying to present our credentials in order to enhance the chances of the acceptance of the tefila. Of course this, as well, should not be seen as some sort of magic solution to a very serious challenge. We do not simply approach God as a spoiled aristocrat’s child demanding special treatment because of who we are regardless of how we are. Our invoking the Merit of the Fathers must also be seen as a statement of commitment on our part. We address God as “our God and the God of our forefathers”. The statement only has value because we address Him as OURS in the same manner that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov did.
In addition I think that the lineage may actually be a hindrance to proper tefila (in some cases). One of the dilemmas that we are faced with vis-à-vis institutionalized prayer is the rote nature of it and the lack of feeling. The tzadik who grew up in the home of a tzadik supposedly grew up with a regular tefila experience. This solid education is important in developing one’s prayer abilities, but at the same time poses a threat to those same abilities. Each and every tefila is identical and one must struggle to infuse passion and relevance to the everyday experience. It is precisely here that the tzadik who did not share the same experience growing up may be at an advantage. For him each tefila is truly a new conversation with God.
I recently read an article about a program here in Israel which prepares high school graduates for their army service. This particular program is a joint program for the religious and the non-religious. The director was being asked about the challenges that exist in dealing with these two groups of people and their expectations. When he was asked about tefila and how the two groups deal with it he remarked that indeed tefila is much easier for one group than the other. The non-religious, he explained, have a much easier time! He recommended watching a representative from each group reciting “Aleynu”. For those of us who say it three times a day we tend to mumble it as we make our way to the exit of the shul. For those who are less familiar with it, the Aleynu is a most inspirational statement of faith!
I hope that our reading of these very few pessukim as the start of our parsha can inspire us to approach our tefila with a fresh and serious attitude.