Parshat Vayera: The Meaning of Prayer

Parshat Vayera contains the first appearance of the word tefilla in Tanach. Avaraham prays (“Vayitpallel”) for Avimelech’s household and God responds to his prayer. Then, Sarah too is remembered by God and becomes pregnant after years of infertility. How does the language of “hitpallel” teach about the efficacy and purpose of prayer? Furthermore, where is Sarah’s prayer?

After the king Avimelech takes Sarah, he is stricken and the wombs of his household are closed as punishment by God, “because of the matter of (al d’var) Sarah”. Avraham prays to God for Avimelech and his family and they are healed. Bereshit Rabbah points out that this unique first expression of the word tefilla indicates that a “knot was undone” – prayer has the power to influence God’s response and yield positive results. However, the Hebrew root פ.ל.ל has another meaning in Tanakh. In Shemot, when damage is done, the reparation is determined “b’flilim,” meaning, “according to the judges.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on the connection between the word for prayer and judgment. The word “hitpallel” is reflexive – an opportunity to “assess/ judge oneself” and one’s relationship with God and the world. 

Both can be true. Tefilla is about pleading with Hashem, a way of expressing our deepest yearnings and requests to God. Tefilla is also an opportunity to self-reflect and focus on the state of ourselves and our relationship with God and others. 
What about Sarah? Does she not engage in prayer as well? In fact, the Sages teach that she prayed too. The midrash reads “al d’var” not as “the matter” of Sarah, but rather “the words (of prayer) of Sarah.” Sarah prayed to be saved and God assured her that Avimelech’s suffering and healing would be according to her word. The rabbis saw role models for tefilla in both Avraham and Sarah, who both call out to God as the source of protection and healing and are answered. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

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