Photo Credit: Jewish Museum
Jacob and Rachel at the Well artist: Tissot

This week’s parshah contains one of the Torah’s most difficult dialogues. In it, a distraught, barren Rachel famously confronts Ya’akov for not granting her children. To this, he responds angrily that he is not God, who can fulfill such a request. As quickly as it began, their discussion ends with her presenting him with her maidservant as an alternative strategy.  

One of the reasons the Torah presents this scene so tersely is because of the reader’s prior knowledge. The backstory is artfully summarized by Rashi, who embellishes their conversation with a midrash: Rachel complains; why doesn’t Yaakov pray for her, like his father, Yitzchak, had prayed for Rivkah? Yaakov’s answer is that his father had no children, whereas he already had several. If so, answers Rachel, “Didn’t Avraham pray for Sarah when he already had Yishmael?” Answers Yaakov back, “That was only after she had given her maidservant to Avraham as a wife.” While several commentators point out that the Torah doesn’t tell us about Avraham praying, the rest of the tapestry speaks very strongly to the context of this story: There had been two precedents to Rachel’s situation. Like Rachel, both Sarah and Rivkah were unable to give birth. The strategy used by Sarah to ‘have children’ was to use her servant as a surrogate; the strategy used by Rivkah (or perhaps – to be more exact – for Rivkah, by her husband) was to storm the Heavens in prayer. Rachel tries to use Rivkah’s strategy. When she is rebuffed by Yaakov, she retreats to Sarah’s.   

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But why didn’t Ya’akov agree to use his father’s strategy? Ya’akov answers her as if she should have known better than to think he could do so. While this means the reason why Yitzchak’s strategy was a non-starter was clear to Ya’akov, his brevity leaves it open for us to ponder.  

The midrash explains that Ya’akov did not avail himself of his father’s approach, as it can only be used when one has no children. Clearly, that is an obvious difference between his case and that of his father, and that is why the midrash chose it as the most likely reason for his behavior. But there is another important difference, and that was Yitzchak himself. For there is prayer and there is PRAYER. Yitzchak may well have had spiritual powers that Ya’akov simply did not have. And so, the language the Torah uses for Yitzchak’s prayer is tale-tellingly unique. But from the story (Berachot 34b) of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, we see that this does not necessarily mean that Yitzchak was the greater of the two. In that story, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explains to his wife that even though Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa was not as great as he was, he had greater ability in prayer. And it is possible that Yaakov was telling Rivkah exactly the same thing – that you should know better than to compare my prayer to the prayer of the greatest master of the internal life, which was Yitzchak.  

But one should not think that the only difference in this regard between Yitzchak on the one hand, and Avraham and Ya’akov on the other, was in their abilities to pray. For when Chanah petitions God for a child in much the same way as Yitzchak, the rabbis (Berachot 31b) express some ambivalence. Likewise, when Choni HaMa’agel would not take God’s no for an answer, the leader of the generation, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, is not completely comfortable (Taanit 19a). 

While very rare exceptions are made for certain individuals, there is a sense that the vast majority of people – and even the greatest among them – must allow God to make the final decision. That is because prayer is not about forcing God’s hand. Rather, it is about sharing our concerns and feelings in the hope that they are worthy of God’s attention. Whether the answer is yes or no is ultimately secondary – as God’s decision will be correct regardless. Hence when Rachel complains to Ya’akov about his not forcing God’s hand, his answer is that such is not his role – “Am I instead of God? God knows best whether to give children or not. All I can do is ask.” 

In our enthusiasm for results, many of us forget Ya’akov’s important lesson. God wants our prayers and He shows us that they can change outcomes. But the fact that they can change outcomes does not give us the right to demand that it be so. 

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