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.
Another translation understands it as חתר (ע and ח are guttural letters and can sometimes be interchanged), which means to dig. The idea being that we have to dig, through prayer, underneath the reality that we face and make a tunnel straight to Hashem. Prayer has this power: to find an alternate route to our goal. The Midrash gives an analogy that this concept is similar to a King and his son. The King has a storehouse of jewels, and the son is outside. Prayer is like the King digging towards the son to give the treasure to him, and the son digging towards the father to receive them. Rav Tzadok of Lublin points out, that we see from this parable that you don’t have to dig the whole tunnel. Hashem will do half the work for us. This is a novel idea. I would have thought if we want divine assistance, it’s entirely upon us to work towards it. If we can’t pray with more effort, that’s our problem. We see that’s wrong; Hashem helps us when we pray. Rav Tzadok says more than this. He points out that the Midrash says first that the King digs towards his son, and then says the son digs towards his father. This tells us that it all starts from Hashem. This is why we say at the beginning of the Amidah: יקוק שפתי תפתח, Hashem open my lips [for prayer]. Hashem gives us the ability to pray for him; we just need to do the rest.
Rabbeinu Bachaye observes an anomaly in the verse. It says that that Yitzchak prayed, and then it says his wife was barren. It says what he did and only then says the reason he did it. It would have made more sense to say the opposite: Rivkah was barren, so Yitzchak prayed. Why was it stated in the opposite order? He writes it alludes to the idea that Chazal teach, that the foremothers were barren because Hashem desires the prayers of the righteous. It’s not that there was a problem, so Yitzchak had to pray. The purpose was the prayer, so Hashem gave him a reason to pray. Why should this be? As we explained, prayer has tremendous power. It can overturn reality. There’s a well-known concept of tikkun haolam, fixing the world. In a spiritual sense, it refers to the good that our mitzvos create. The righteous have much more fixing potential than the average person. Their prayers could do a lot of good for the world. That’s why Hashem engineers their lives to motivate them to pray with all of their might.
It makes sense now why Hashem wanted Yitzchak and Rivka to pray, by why was the motivator chosen to be that Rivka was barren? Was it for any other purpose? Rabbeinu Bachaye explains that Sarah, Rivka and Rachel being barren served a purpose besides prayer. See his explanations for Sarah and Rachel, but what he says about Rivka is fascinating. Hashem promised Avraham in parshas Lech Lecha, that he will only die בשיבה טובה, at a ripe old age. Rashi explains that there’s more intended than the literal meaning. It’s a promise that his son Yishmael will repent before Avraham dies, and his grandson Eisav will not act wickedly all of Avraham’s days. Rashi tells us that even though Avraham lived until the old age of 175, he really should have lived until 180, like his son Yitzchak. Why did he die 5 years early? Because the day he died was when Eisav committed his first murder, along with a bunch of other crimes. Avraham died in order to fulfill the promise, so that he would not see his grandson act wickedly during his lifetime. Why was Rivka barren? So she wouldn’t give birth to Eisav right away. Hashem wanted to delay Rivka giving birth so that He wouldn’t have to make Avraham die early. Eisav was always going to go bad, and if it could be delayed another 5 years then Avraham could die at the right time.
The question then is, why didn’t Hashem stick to the plan? If Rivka was made barren to prevent Eisav from being born too early, wait another 5 years and Avraham could live a full life! The answer is that was the plan, but Yitzchak and Rivka prayed. They really wanted children. This is what Rashi2 meant that Hashem didn’t want to listen to their prayers. If He listened, He’d have to make Avraham die early. But prayer prevailed. Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld points out that the gematria, numerical value, of the words ויעתר לו יקוק, is 748. This is the same as the value of the words חמש שנים, five years. With this answer to the prayer, it cost Avraham 5 years of his life.
We see from here a powerful idea. You get what you asked for, even if it’s to your detriment. Chazal say the path a person wants to go, They [in heaven] guide them towards it. Someone who wants to defile themselves, They [in heaven] open the way for them. Before praying for something you should first confirm it’s in your best interest. It might not always be the best thing to win the lottery, or to get that job. Make sure you really want what you ask for, because you might just get it.
 Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Elimelech Reznick in 5773
 Genesis 25:21
 Ad. loc.
 Bereishis Rabbah 63:5
 Rabbi Reznick quoted the following idea from Rav Tzadok, but I couldn’t find in any of his works where he discusses this Midrash. There are however many sources that point this idea out from the Midrash
 See note 5. I did find this idea explicitly in Shem MiShmuel parshas Toldos from the year 5673
 Yevamos 64b and Midrash Tanchuma Toldos § 9
 See Nefesh HaChaim 2:10
 Genesis 15:15
 Ad. loc. see note 12
 ibid 25:30
 See Bereishis Rabbah 63:12, the source for Rashi‘s comment, and Bava Basra 16b for other sins Eisav committed that day
 Problem is, Rashi to verse 27 says that Eisav worshipped idols at the age of 13, whereas Avraham died when Eisav was 15 (since according to Genesis 21:5 and 25:26, Avraham was 100 when Yitzchak was born and Yitzchak was 60 when he had his sons). See Mizrachi to verse 30 and Eitz Yosef to Bereishis Rabbah 63:10 who explain that the idol worshipping was done in secret, whereas the murder was done openly. Cf. Nachalas Yaakov to verse 30, who says that the idol worship was when he was 13, whereas the worse sins of adultery and murder were when he was 15 (see previous note). I’m not sure why he feels idol worship is less serious)
 Makkos 10b
 Shabbos 104a