Parashat Toldot / The Anarchy of Prayer

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“The Jewish Bride,” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1667).
Yakov Z. Meyer

“If a man marries a woman and if, after 10 years of marriage, she has not given birth, he cannot remain married to her [because he has not performed the first mitzvah in the Torah: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’]. After he divorces her, she can marry someone else and he can remain married to her for 10 years” (Mishna Tractate Yebamot, 6:6).

Since it is impossible to know which partner in the marriage is sterile, reasons the Mishna, both husband and wife are given the opportunity to perform the commandment of being fruitful and multiplying with another partner. The Mishna specifies that a period of 10 years must elapse prior to a divorce, and/or the period in which the husband engages in polygamy. But what is the source of this seemingly arbitrary time limit?

The Gemarah passage that follows the above Mishna poses this very question and cites the Book of Genesis: Ten years after Abram and Sarai, as they are then named, arrive in Canaan, Sarai, who has still not borne a child, dispatches her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, to her husband, telling him: “Go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her” (Gen. 16:2).

However, the astute Babylonian amora Rava identifies the potential reference that can be made to this issue in the stories of the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ infertility, and he seeks to draw our attention from the story of Abraham and Sarah to that of Isaac and Rebecca, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9).

At the beginning of the portion, the reader is told, “And Isaac entreated [vaye’etar] the Lord for [i.e., in the presence of] his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord let himself be entreated of him [vayei’ater: answered his prayer ], and Rebecca his wife conceived” (Gen. 25:21). Using a play on words, based on the different forms of the root ayin-tav-resh, this concise, symmetrical verse in the Torah presents Isaac’s prayer and God’s answer to that prayer as if they were two events occurring simultaneously.

Only a few verses later, when describing the birth of Jacob and Esau, does the Torah remind the reader, almost casually: “And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them” (Gen. 25:26). In other words, 20 years have passed from the day of Isaac and Rebecca’s wedding until God grants an answer to Isaac’s prayer.

Citing this two-decade gap, Rava challenges the seemingly arbitrary 10-year time limit for barrenness that the Mishna specifies: “Rava said to Rav Nachman: One can conclude [that the time limit can be 20 years] from the story of Isaac, as it is written, ‘And Isaac was 40 years old when he took Rebecca to be his wife’ [Gen. 25:20]. And then, ‘And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamot, p. 64a).

If we cite the example of Isaac, rather than that of Abraham, then a married couple can actually be given 20 years, not 10, to fulfill the mitzvah in question. However, Rav Nachman retorts, in the same source: “Isaac himself was sterile.”

In the above instance related to Jewish religious law – and of course in the absence of suitable medical tests in antiquity – it is impossible to know which one of the marital partners is sterile or whether perhaps they both are. Thus, they must make yet another attempt to bring a child into the world with another partner after the 10-year period in their first marriage has elapsed.

However, in the case of Isaac and Rebecca, the biblical text supplies information about their situation, with respect to fertility. Rebecca is sterile, as one can understand from a literal reading of the text, whereas Isaac is sterile, according to the following passage in the same source as above: “Rabbi Isaac said: Our patriarch Isaac was sterile, as it is written, ‘And Isaac entreated the Lord for [or, in the presence of] his wife.’ The Torah does not say that Isaac prays for his wife but rather lenokhah [in the presence of] his wife. It can therefore be deduced that they were both sterile.”

According to Rabbi Isaac, the use of the word lenokhah indicates that the subject of Isaac’s prayer is not Rebecca, rather he is praying because of the symmetry of their situations: that is, they both are sterile. It follows that there would have been no point in either of them trying to bring a child into the world with another marital partner. Isaac and Rebecca’s story, then, cannot be presented as evidence, and thus Rava’s argument is refuted. The time limit is indeed 10 years.

Although the implications vis-a-vis religious law in Isaac and Rebecca’s story are rejected, the story is not forgotten by scholars in the Talmudic academy. Instead, it is now approached, in the same above-mentioned tractate, from the homiletic angle: “Rabbi Isaac asked: ‘Why are our patriarchs sterile? Because God loves to hear the prayers of righteous persons.’”

According to Rabbi Isaac, then, God makes the patriarchs sterile so that he can hear their prayers. The image of God here is different from that of the usual, merciful divine image. Here he is seen as capricious and whimsical, craving his children’s prayer. Prayer is thus removed from the context of conciliation and supplication; instead, the emphasis is on the very act of praying itself. God is not angry with his children, nor does he want them to repent for sinful behavior – he simply wants to hear them pray.

Anthropomorphically speaking, God is thirsty for the prayers of the righteous. Since the emphasis here is not on prayer as a form of communication between mortals and God, but rather on the very act of prayer, irrespective of its content – Rabbi Isaac then argues: “Why are the prayers of the righteous like a pitchfork [atar, which has the same root mentioned above, ayin-tav-resh, and can also mean “to pray”]. Because, just as a pitchfork can move crops from side to side, similarly, the prayers of the righteous can move God from a state of anger to one of compassion.”

For Rabbi Isaac, then, prayer has an anarchic power; it can burst forth and turn whole worlds upside-down. Just like the pitchfork, prayer can move God’s mood from one place (anger) to another (compassion). It is a tool used not to convince God, but to overpower him. Prayer is seen here as a mechanical act; the content is not important, only the very act itself. This view of prayer as an anarchic force is an important message for those who find themselves constricted by the arbitrary limits of the law itself.