Prayer as Pitchfork (Toldot)

This week’s parsha takes its name from the “generations” of Isaac, but in the opening verses, Isaac is forty and still childless. His wife Rebecca is barren, and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf. Only then does Rebecca conceive twins, ensuring that the generations of Isaac will continue. Isaac’s groundbreaking prayer, discussed in the Talmud, offers us a lesson in what it means to sow the seeds for a more flourishing future.

The Talmud considers Isaac’s prayer in the context of a discussion in tractate Yevamot (64a) about the case of a married couple who are unable to bear children. The Mishnah teaches that if a man remains married to a woman for ten years and she does not conceive, he is “not permitted to desist” from the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and therefore must divorce her and/or marry an additional wife. The rabbis question whether ten years is really the limit, citing the example of Isaac, who married Rebecca at age forty (Gen. 25:20) but did not become a father until twenty years later (Gen. 25:26). They explain that Isaac is different, because he himself was infertile and therefore he knew there would be no point in divorcing his wife. With this example, the Talmud demonstrates that the law stipulated in the Mishnah is not as clear and absolute as it might seem – there are special cases and exceptions, especially when it comes to a matter so difficult and devastating.

In describing Isaac’s prayer for a child, the Torah uses an unusual term: “Isaac pleaded (va-ye’etar) with the Lord.” The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yitzchak, discussing his namesake, explains that this word comes from the same root as the word for “pitchfork” (eter): “Just as this pitchfork turns over the wheat from one place to another, so the prayer of the righteous turns over the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the attribute of rage to attribute of mercy.” Just as the pitchfork turns over the wheat, Isaac’s prayer turns over God—moves God, as it were – to make his wife fertile. Of course, as we now know better than ever before, in our modern age of science and technology, prayer is only one way of seeking to alleviate infertility. But the Talmudic rabbis use the case of Isaac to make an argument—provocative and controversial—about the power of petitionary prayers.

“Why were our forefathers infertile?” the Talmudic rabbis ask, and then go on to answer their own question: “Because God desires the prayers of the righteous.” How can God care more about eliciting prayer than about allaying human suffering? And yet perhaps it is the knowledge that God needs our prayers that can begin to allay our suffering. When confronted with situations that seem so painfully beyond our control, we feel our vulnerability and our dependence on God. In such moments, the Talmud teaches, it may be instructive to remember that God, too, is dependent on us – “because God desires the prayers of the righteous.”

This explanation comes up at only one other point in the Talmud, in the context of the fertility of the soil. The rabbis in tractate Hullin (60b) note that whereas the Torah relates on the third day of creation that “the earth brought forth grass” (Gen. 1:12), we are also told on the sixth day that “no shrub of the field was yet in the earth” (2:5). If the earth brought forth grass on the third day, how was there no vegetation three days later? Rav Asi explains that the grass emerged on the third day and stood poised at the opening of the ground, but did not grow until Adam came and prayed for it – which is meant to teach that “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” And so before Adam came along on the sixth day, there was indeed no “shrub of the field.”

The term used in the creation story for “shrub of the field” is siach ha-sadeh. The Torah employs a similar phrase later in Genesis when recounting that Isaac went out in the late afternoon “to meditate in the field” (la-suach basadeh) (Gen. 24:63) – a phrase the Talmudic rabbis understood as a reference to prayer (Berakhot 26b). Adam prays for the still-barren soil and Isaac prays in the fields and then for the alleviation of his wife’s barrenness. As the Talmud suggests, their prayers do not just nourish the natural world; they also, as it were, sustain and nourish God.

The connection between the growing blades of grass and the prayer of the human heart is captured beautifully in Shirat Ha-Asavim, a song by Naomi Shemer based on sources from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav:

Know that each and every blade of grass has its own song…
How beautiful and pleasant to hear their song
It is very good to pray among them and to serve God in joy.

Isaac, who prayed among the blades of grass when he meditated in the field, ultimately succeeded in arousing divine mercy – his wife became pregnant with twins. Our parsha teaches that once Isaac became a father, he “sowed seeds in that land and reaped a hundredfold” (26:12). Issac the infertile patriarch is transformed not just into a father of multiples, but also into a sower of plentiful seeds. From the formerly impotent Isaac we learn about the potency of prayer to coax forth dormant potential – in the earth, and within ourselves.

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