The Answered Prayer
ויעתר יצחק לה’ לנכח אשתו כי עקרה היא ויעתר לו יקוק ותהר רבקה אשתו
Yitzchak entreated to Hashem, opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem was appeased and Rivka his wife conceived
We can learn many things about prayer from this verse. First, the Torah uses an unusual word for prayer, ויעתר. Usually it uses a word like ויתפלל, translated as prayed, or ויצעק, he cried out. What does the verb here mean? Rashi explains it denotes increase; a large amount. Yitzchak and Rivka didn’t just pray; they prayed a lot. They desperately wanted children, and weren’t letting up. They weren’t taking no for an answer. Rashi also explains it denotes pleading, begging and convincing. It sounds like Hashem didn’t want to give them children, and they had to convince Him to change His mind. The question is, why should that be? More on that later. Rabbeinu Bachaye3 gives a few more explanations of the word ויעתר, based on the Midrash. One explanation it is based off the word עתר, to overturn. Through the power of prayer, Yitzchak was able to overturn his fate. That is what prayer generally is: it’s the power to change nature. Despite the fact that Rivka was barren, the prayer worked.
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The Undetected Bias
…לא-תקח אשה לבני מבנות הכנעני אשר אנכי יושב בקרבו: כי אל-ארצי ואל-מולדתי תלך ולקחת אשה לבני ליצחק: ויאמר אליו העבד אולי לא-תאבה האשה ללכת אחרי אל-הארץ הזאת…
“Don’t take a wife for my son from the Canaanite women amongst which I dwell. Rather you shall go to my land and my birthplace; [there] you shall take a wife for my son Yitzchak”. The servant responded to him: “Perhaps the woman will not come with me to travel to this land…”
Parshas Chayei Sarah describes Avraham’s servant Eliezer’s mission to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham was very specific with what he was looking for in a wife for his son. He was concerned with the negative influence his neighbors could have on his son. Therefore, he preferred to find someone from where he originated. After giving strict instructions to Eliezer, his servant responded with a question. Maybe the woman won’t want to return with him to this land. It was a legitimate question. However, Avraham responded that no matter what, he won’t allow his son to leave the land of Israel.
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Laughing at good news
ויאמר שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה והנה-בן לשרה אשתך ושרה שמעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו: ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי לי עדנה ואדני זקן: ויאמר יקוק אל אברהם למה זה צחקה שרה לאמר האף אמנם אלד ואני זקן: ותכחש שרה לאמר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר כי צחקת
[The Angel] said: “I will surely return at this time [next year] and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son”. Sarah [in the meantime] was listening at the entrance to the tent, and he/it was behind him. Sarah laughed within, saying: “After no longer having my period? As well, my husband is old?!” Hashem said to Avraham, why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: “Is it true that I’ll give birth, since I am old?” Sarah denied [this], and said, “I didn’t laugh!” because she was afraid. He said: “Actually, you laughed”.
One of the hardest to understand episodes in Sefer Bereishis is the story of Sarah’s reaction to the good news that she’ll have a son. Three Angels, in the guise of desert travelers, approached Avraham’s tent and were invited to a meal. These Angels each had a specific mission. One came to announce that Sarah, despite her old age and being barren, will have a son. Besides all the strange grammatical anomalies and inconsistencies in this story, just the basic elements of the story are hard to understand. Avraham had been promised by Hashem to have many descendants. While he already had a child with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, why was it so hard for Sarah to believe that she’d bear a child? It’s true that some commentaries say that Avraham didn’t realize these people were Angels, so perhaps Sarah took this news as some stranger giving her false hope. However, knowing the promise to Avraham, if some stranger says similarly, what’s there to laugh about?
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