Prayers of the Righteous

After the death of Sarah, the focus of Parshat Chaye Sarah is Yitzchak’s search for a wife. But not really. Yitzchak does not seem to have much involvement in the process at all and in fact it is Avraham who sends his trusty servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham orchestrates the entire plan and does not even consult Yitzchak. Ibn Shuaib notes that this is a testament to the bond and trust between Avraham and Yitzchak. Yitzchak knew that his father was looking out for him, and had only his best interests in mind. Avraham knew that his son trusted him, and that he would be able to adequately find the perfect wife for his son.

Ibn Shuiab discusses an additional facet of the story. The Torah records the quest for a wife for Yitzchak, and later in the book of Bereishit, will record the quest for a wife for Yaakov. However with regards to Avraham, we are just told that he marries Sarah. No details are given to the courting process other than Sarah’s lineage.

Further, when Rivkah is barren, Yitzchak prays on her behalf (see Bereishit 25:21). However, Avraham does not pray for Sarah to have a child. Why not?

The Radak (Bereishit 16:2) suggests that Avraham did not pray for Sarah, or prayed but was not answered, so that when Sarah did give birth at an old age it would be seen as a miracle. Had Avraham successfully prayed at a young age, then Yitschak’s birth would not have been viewed as an overt act of God.

Ibn Shuiab has a different approach which explains both why the Torah records the courtship of Rivkah and why Yitzchak prayed for her to have a child.

Avraham knew that he needed to have a child in order to fulfill his destiny and become the father of many nations. Though while he knew that he needed a child, he did not know who the mother would be. True, he was married to Sarah, but she was barren. Perhaps, he thought, he would father a child from a different woman. In fact, that is what occurred with the birth of Yishmael. So for all those years of barrenness, Avraham did not ask for God to allow Sarah to conceive, because he was open to the option of having a child through a surrogate. Therefore, he had no need to pray for Sarah to have a child, and the courtship between Avraham and Sarah is not critical because Sarah is not the only person with whom Avraham could have had a child.

This is not the case with Yitzchak. Yitzchak was an oleh temimah, attained an elevated status, when he was near sacrificed on the altar. Yitzchak would not be allowed to father a child via a maidservant, and therefore he needed to pray for Rivkah to conceive because she was his only chance at having a child. 

Rashi (Bereishit 30:2) quotes from the Midrash that Yaakov did not pray for Rachel to have a child when she too was barren, because Yaakov already had children from Leah. Yaakov told Rachel that his own father, Yitzchak, only prayed for a child because he was childless. But Yaakov himself already had children and therefore could not offer such prayers. Support for Yaakov’s decision can be the behavior of his grandfather Avraham. Avraham also did not pray for Sarah to have a child, because he could be fulfilled through Hagar.

One final question. Even though Avraham could have just had a child with Hagar, why not also pray for a child with Sarah? Is too much prayer a problem? Ibn Shuiab answers this question by writing, “For the righteous do not want to bother God except for great needs.” No doubt Avraham and Sarah would have loved to have a child together, but Avraham saw that as a personal desire, not a “great need.”

Ultimately God disagreed. God granted Avraham and Sarah a child because their destiny was to be fulfilled through Yitzchak, not Yishmael. But the message is clear. Righteous people don’t think of their own needs when they pray, they think of the needs of others.

The idea of righteous people not praying for their own needs has been demonstrated by Torah giants again and again throughout history. Here is one such episode from the life of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook. Rabbi Neriyah quoted a passage from a letter of Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Harlap to Rabbi Shim’on Glitzenstein (who had served as Rav Kook’s private secretary in London during World War one). The letter, dated 16 Tammuz, 5705 [1945], has since been published in its entirety in the journal Me-Avnei ha-Makom, vol. 11 (2000). Here is the passage:

One time, one of Rav Kook’s offspring needed salvation, and a great rabbi in the Diaspora who was close to that offspring was very pained by the lack of salvation. He composed a letter to the Rav, saying that he believes with perfect faith that if the Rav would feel the need of salvation for his offspring and would pray for him, certainly his prayer would be answered from Heaven, but on account of his work on behalf of Kelal Yisrael, he is oblivious to the situation and does not focus on praying for his offspring, despite the boundless love he has for his offspring.

When he received that letter, the Rav send for me specially and said to me: “I am amazed how that Rabbi hit the mark. What can I do if I do not connect to the individual? All my thoughts are devoted to the collective. But in order to fulfill the request of that Rabbi, I entrust the matter of prayer to his honor, and the Master of Compassion shall not refrain from answering his prayer, uttered with heart and soul.”

In his letter, Rabbi Harlap did not identify the identities of the person’s concerned. However in a private conversation with his trusted disciple Rabbi Yosef Leib Zussman, Rabbi Harlap revealed that he had been asked by the Rav to pray on behalf of the Rav’s only son, Rabbi Zevi Yehudah. Rabbi Zevi Yehudah was not blessed with children, which prompted his father-in-law, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hutner of Warsaw (“a great rabbi in the Diaspora”) to write a letter to Rav Kook, remonstrating with him to intercede on behalf of his beloved son! (The Koren Rav Kook Siddur, translated and adapted by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, Pages 52-53.)

May we merit to put the needs of the community before our own, and may we continue to merit to have Torah leaders who follow in the path of Avraham Avinu and do the same.

Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.