Parshat Toldot: Long-term Optimism

How does one remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of adversity? Some insight and inspiration can be gleaned from the instances of tefilla in parshat Toldot. 

After twenty years of infertility, prayers and longing to have a child, Rivka becomes pregnant. The word for prayer here – ויעתר –  is unique. It is used twice to mean (1) Yitzchak entreats God and (2) God responds to his plea. This mirroring of language highlights that the tefillot were heard and answered. The Sages debate the deeper meaning of the word ויעתר. One interpretation: Yitzchak’s prayers become more frequent and urgent. Alternatively, it relates to the word for pitchfork (עתר). Just as a pitchfork overturns grain from place to place, so to does tefilla of the righteous change God’s decree from cruelty to mercy. Hence, this tefilla is a model for holding out hope in the face of long-term yearning and challenges.

The commentaries add another dimension to this prayer when they teach that Rivka was an integral part of the tefillot being answered. Yitzchak prays “l’nochach ishto,” in the presence of his wife. The midrash explains that they were both equally devoted and sychronized in their tefillot. Each stood in one corner, but together in the same room, highlighting the strength of davening together. Additionally, Rivka continues praying when pregnant. When the twins struggle inside her womb, she goes to “lidrosh (inquire) of Hashem.” Ramban, based on other instances of this word in Tanach, comments that in this moment of concern and crisis, she prayed to God.

This week Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd and their return to Jerusalem after many centuries – another model of long-term prayers fulfilled. Yet, our beloved Jerusalem and Israel still face challenges and adversity. Rivka and Yitzchak provide a model of tefilla as entreaty and inquiry and as a source of extended optimism as we pray our dreams of peace and security will be fulfilled. Shabbat Shalom & Chodesh tov! -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Types of Tefilla

There is a seeming paradox within Jewish prayer. If the times we pray and the words we say are fixed by halakha, how can tefilla also be flexible, individualized and filled with kavanah (intention)?! Parshat Chayei Sarah provides some insight into this question.

The Talmud, drawing on the parsha, contains a debate about the origin of the three daily prayers in Talmud Berachot. One opinion is that tefilla is modeled after the Avot: Avraham instituted shacharit, Yitzchak – mincha, and Yacov – ma’ariv. Alternatively, tefilla is based on the daily “tamid” offerings from the Beit Hamikdash. What is the difference? Tefilla which parallels the daily offerings is characterized by constancy and consistency, infusing holiness into our day at prescribed times. Tefilla modeled after the Avot conveys diversity and spontaneity in prayer. Each of the forefathers is associated with a different time of day/night for tefilla and with a distinct word for prayer in the Torah. Avraham’s prayer is called “standing.” Yitzchak’s tefilla is called “lasuach” (conversing?) and Yacov “encounters.” By drawing on both these sources of tefilla – tamid offerings and avot – the Talmud encourages us to engage with tefilla both from obligated regularity and from voluntary inspiration. 

The source of Yitzchak’s mincha prayer, found in parshat Chayei Sarah, reinforces this duality in tefilla. The verse states, “And Isaac went out “lasuaḥ in the field toward evening.” Some commentaries understand the word “lasuaḥ” as meaning “to converse,” as in “sicha” (conversation). Others see a connection between “lasuaḥ” and “sichim,” (plants and trees). Hence, Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, explains that tefilla is related to both: It is an opportunity for an individual to converse with God; and, tefilla enables a soul to blossom with renewed energy, so that a person can emerge from praying and branch out like a tree in the world.  

Tefilla as “sicha” establishes a framework for continuing to engage in regular conversation with God, while also leaving space to renew ourselves and our relationship with tefilla. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

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

Parshat Noah: A Window to the World

Why does God command Noah to build a “tzohar” (opening) on the ark? The tevah was meant to enclose and protect those inside so that they could survive the floods. What purpose would an opening serve? The interpretations of the “tzohar” also provide a model for how to view our homes and places of prayer today.

The word tzohar appears only once in Tanach, making it difficult to define. Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah, provides two explanations: 1) Some say it was a window, 2) others say it was a precious stone which provided light. Both interpretations explain how Noah and his family, who lived on the ark for an entire year, managed to have light and differentiate between day and night. Yet, there is a difference: The precious stone would not have allowed Noah to look out to the world, only to bring light inward. A window however, has a dual purpose – to let the light in and to look out and connect with the outside world. Perhaps this is why Hizkuni teaches that the tzohar was the window through which Noah later sends out the raven, to check if the waters had dried up, reconnecting with the outside.

Windows are also an important part of our prayer spaces and homes. The Talmud Berachot, based on Daniel, states that a person should only pray in a bayit with windows (and this is codified as halacha). Why? Some rishonim explain that the light, or looking to the heavens, will help enhance our kavanah in tefillah. Rav Kook provides a different reason: A person who has the most intention-filled prayers, but is disconnected from the outside world is not achieving the full purpose of tefillah. By davening in a room with a view of the outside, a person will be inspired to positively influence and do good in the world s/he inhabits. 

Like Noah’s tevah, our homes and shuls are a space to protect and nurture ourselves, to build up our emunah and enhance our tefilla, like the stone shining inward. Yet, by staying inside, our lives are incomplete. Through gazing outside we are reminded of our responsibility to the outside world. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

The Tefillah Paradox: Standardized or Spontaneous?

Tefillah is such a significant part of our lives. 1 Yet, it contains a paradox – on the one hand, the times we pray and the words we say are prescribed by halakha. On the other hand, tefillah is meant to be heartfelt and filled with kavanah. How does one approach such standardized devotion while retaining continuous intention? The sources of the mitzvah of tefillah reflect this tension and offer some potential insight into this dilemma.

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Toldot: Hope

Parshat Toldot opens with the heartbreaking yet hopeful scene of Yitzchak praying that he and Rivka will be blessed with children. Rivka, like Sarah before her, is akarrah, and it takes 20 years until she conceives. Many commentaries understand that Rivka, already proven to be one who takes action, was praying as well. How did they remain committed and hopeful for so long, in the face of such adversity?

Several unique elements may provide some guidance. The Torah depicts Yitzchak praying “l’nochach ishto,” in the presence of his wife. Rashi explains that they were equally devoted to their tefillot. Each stood in one corner, but together in the same room, highlighting the strength of their connection. Radak adds that Yitzchak looked at Rivka while praying and drew strength from her.

Also, the word used for Yitzchak’s tefillot is noteworthy. In fact, the same word is used twice –ויעתר- he entreats God and God responds to his plea. This mirroring of language highlights that Yitzchak’s (and by extension Rivka’s) tefillot were heard and answered. The Talmud interprets the word ויעתר based on the Talmudic word for pitchfork — עתר. Just as a pitchfork overturns grain from place to place, so does tefilla of tzaddikim change God’s decree from cruelty to mercy.

Today, in addition to grappling with issues such as infertility or health challenges, people are contending with loneliness and a yearning to see and hug loved ones. Yitzchak and Rivka teach us how to respond to such challenges — remain hopeful, be persistent, support each other, and focus on tefilla. Shabbat Shalom.