The Jew-Brew, Part 2 – Yitzchak’s Prayer: Human Intimacy as Metaphor for Divine Connection

Previously we have explored the role of faith in the creation of the Jewish People. What other ingredients needed to be discovered and added to the embryo that would eventually develop into our Nation?

Let’s proceed further into Parshat Toldot:

בראשית פרק כה
(יט) וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק: (כ) וַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה: (כא) וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה’ וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ:

While we can assume that the root עתר has something to do with prayer, it is not clear what exactly this term is meant to connote or why it is used here in place of some of the more common prayer-words – פלל, פגע, and צעק come to mind. Moreover, the dual use of the term in relation to both Yitzchak’s action and Hashem’s corresponding action is perplexing – what is it that each would do to the other that would make the Pasuk read smoothly? And a final question: Throughout all of Avraham and Sarah’s long period spent waiting for a child, why don’t we ever see them simply ask Hashem for one? Why does prayer only enter the equation with the introduction of Yitzchak and Rivka?

In order to understand the concept of עתר and its symbiosis between Yitzchak and Hashem, we need to consider a Rashi on the relative locations of Yitzchak and Rivka:

רש”י בראשית פרק כה
לנכח אשתו – זה עומד בזוית זו ומתפלל, וזו עומדת בזוית זו ומתפללת:

With Yitzchak and Rivka far apart, the operative relationship in the Pasuk is left to occur between Yitzchak and Hashem. Their connection was of a sort that had never before been made between man and Creator, a fusion known as עתר. Like two humans experiencing the most intense moment of intimacy, Yitzchak and Hashem connected electrically at that moment. And suddenly, in the very same Pasuk, ותהר – Rivka was pregnant.

A glimpse of Tefillah as viewed through the prism of this most intense, most singular experience is described by Rav Schwab in Rav Schwab on Prayer. Rav Schwab wonders what is so wonderful about connecting גאל ישראל (the Beracha before Shemoneh Esrei) with Shemoneh Esrei as to lead the Gemara to declare that הסומך גאולה לתפילה מביא גאולה לעולם, one who connects Geulah to Tefillah brings redemption to the world. Rav Schwab suggests that we redefine the term גואל. As used throughout Chumash (see, for example, the beginning of Perek 5 of Bamidbar), the term does not mean redeemer as much as it means stand-in, substitute, or replacement. At the moment that we refer to Hashem as גאל ישראל, we declare Hashem to be the One who would stand in for us in any situation. If, at that very moment, we too declare that we would do anything in the world for Hashem – that we would sacrifice our very lives to Him as the Tamid sacrifice for which the weekday Shemoneh Esrei substitutes – then a singular, electric fusion has been made between man and Creator, one which will מביא גאולה לעולם. Easier said than done; no surprise that even the great Amoraim viewed such as a fusion as a near-impossibility! Yet who better to model Tefillah through the prism of self-sacrifice than Yitzchak, who literally spent time on a Mizbeach?

This fusion, one which can only be experienced humanly at the moment of the greatest conjugal pleasure, is modeled for us in the relationship of Yitzchak and Hashem at the moment at which Yitzchak עתרed to Hashem and Hashem עתרed back. That this is the very first time Tefillah is introduced, that it is the model for us of what Tefillah is intended to be, is not a surprise. Avraham and Sarah related to Hashem in a way that was too human to allow for intimate conversation of the sort Yitzchak innovates here. Avraham bantered with Hashem about Sedom; Sarah laughed at Hashem’s promise of granting her a son. This may have been a necessary outgrowth of Avraham’s having rediscovered Hashem in a lost universe, the only way Hashem could be salvaged from total neglect, but it took Yitzchak to find a way by which the rest of us could relate to Hashem: through the metaphor of human intimacy. Accessing that model of Tefillah in our own lives would מביא גאולה לעולם, just as, in its initial invocation, it brought גאולה לעולם through the immediate conception of Yaakov.

In fact, the Midrash goes farther than Rashi in describing the intimacy implied by our Pasuk:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה סג
לנכח אשתו – מלמד, שהיה יצחק שטוח (lying flat on the floor) כאן, והיא שטוחה כאן …
ויעתר לו ה’ – רבי לוי אמר, משל לבן מלכים שהיה חותר על אביו ליטול ליטרא של זהב, והיה זה חותר (dig) מבפנים, וזה חותר מבחוץ. שכן בערביא קורין לחתירתא (breaching; penetration) עתירתא.

It is hard to say whether Rashi, aware of Christian overtones, deliberately stands our characters up (זה עומד בזוית זו ומתפלל, וזו עומדת בזוית זו ומתפללת) rather than leave them lying on the floor in order to avoid the possibility of our Pasuk being misconstrued as a virgin birth. Either way, the Midrashic use of זה חותר מבפנים וזה חותר מבחוץ seems to imply an equal and opposite use of force by the two parties involved, which again negates a simplistic definition for עתר such as “pray” or “beg” and allows for a metaphor of human intimacy of the type we described earlier.

The kind of interaction that Avraham and Sarah had with Hashem was not instructive, not a model; while it is a testament to their own greatness, it was never replicated or even held as an ideal in future paradigms of human-Divine interaction. The paradigm of prayer as חיתורא, penetration – intimate, symbiotic commitment, modeled by the man known in Kabbalistic literature as יצחק עקידתא, Yitzchak the eternally bound one – is a lofty goal, but one that is narrowly within our grasp. Yitzchak’s sacrificial Akeidah experience has as its logical extension a model of Tefillah which replicates that sacrifice and translates it into a form which, with a lifetime of work ahead of us, we can each aspire to reach.

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