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Needle in a Haystack

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 11/08/18

For twenty years Yitzchok and Rivka entreat G-d to grant them a child before they are finally blessed with the birth of twins. The form of prayer Yitzchok utilized is described as וַיֶעְתַּר, which Rashi explains to mean: הרבה והפציר בתפילה, He prayed much and entreated (G-d) with prayer... every expression of עתר is an expression of entreaty and increase...


Similarly in G-d accepting their appeal it too refers to G-d having וַיֵעָתֶר, with Rashi adding: נתפצר ונתפייס ונתרצה,  He (G-d) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.


Is the prayer of Yitzchok unique simply because of his persistence? Is it merely the length of time he spent on his request that is being emphasized?


What is Rashi implying when he states that G-d was ‘placated’ and ‘swayed’ in finally submitting to his request? What did G-d ‘struggle’ with that made Him so resistant that he needed to be swayed?


The illustrious and beloved Rav of the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, suggested a brilliant answer to this last question.


Avraham was promised at the Covenant of the Parts that he would die ‘in a good old age’. The Midrash interprets this as an assurance that he would have the satisfaction of seeing his offspring follow in his footsteps; Yishmael would repent and Esav would not embark on a career of evil, during his lifetime. Unfortunately though, when Esav turned fifteen he could no longer hold back his urge to sin. Avraham who was yet destined to live to the ripe old age of one hundred and eighty, was only one hundred and seventy five years old at that juncture. G-d was forced to summon Avraham prematurely lest His promise that he would die ‘in a good old age’ be unfulfilled with his seeing Esav ‘go off the derech’ in his lifetime.


When G-d was considering finally blessing Yitzchok and Rivka with children, Avraham was approaching one hundred and sixty. G-d in His prescience knew that Esav would succumb to sin at the age of fifteen, and if these children would be born now, Avraham would have to die five years too soon. It was regarding this conflict that G-d needed to be ‘swayed’ into allowing these children to be born with the consequence of Avraham’s early exit from this world.


Rav Sonnenfeld then added remarkably that the words that describe G-d’s consenting to their request, ויעתר לו י-ה-ו-ה, G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by him, is numerically equivalent to חמש שנים, five years, that were deducted from Avraham’s life, both phrases equaling 748.


It is reported that when the great Gadol, Rav Aharon Kotler, heard this idea he exclaimed that Rav Sonnenfeld evidently merited Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration.


The question begs though, why couldn’t G-d have waited another five years before having these children born thus avoiding the need to remove Avraham in a untimely fashion? Additionally, wouldn’t Avraham, who certainly knew how to deal with disappointment, much have rather preferred to continue his life mission for another five years, facing his grandson’s failure notwithstanding?


מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, The actions of the forefathers are a portent for their children.


Avraham’s legacy to the world was kindness. His descendants would continue to reflect his ways in bringing all of humanity to a better place, creating a world of chesed, generosity. The influence of Avraham on all of the seventy nations of the world, represented by his two descendants, Yishmael and Esav, would have to be evident in his lifetime till the end. The impact his persona of kindness would have to be so compelling that Yishmael would repent and Esav couldn’t defy that brilliant light. This would one day pan out in the end of time where all the nations will rally under the flag of His unity, led by the thoughtful and good-hearted children of Avraham.


Yitzchok knew that kindness alone cannot conquer the conscience of the world. It would be our outstanding self-discipline, an ability to master our instincts and thoughts, coupled with the compassion of Avraham that would become the hallmark of our inspiring greatness that would capture the imagination of the nations.


The prayer of Yitzchok wasn’t simply an incessant request for a child that was ultimately heeded.


The saintly Mashgiach of Mir and Ponovezh fame, Reb Chatzkel Levenshtein, writes:


The foundation of our spiritual service is that we not remain static but rather constantly grow and advance... when a person finds himself in stress and his prayer stems from the depths of his heart, he is elevated... for the essence of prayer is to transform man and to have him attain new  regions he formerly couldn’t... prayer is not merely a reciting of chapter and verse... its goal is to transform a person enabling him to reach new plateaus... when he improves his spiritual standing and reach places he never stood in when he endured his former stress, then hope arises that G-d will assist him and save him, for this is not simply a change of heart of the Almighty, just the fact he is no longer the same person who was decreed upon those difficulties... prayer is not the changing of G-d’s will as much as it is the altering of man’s standing, so that this new individual was never decreed upon...    


Every day Yitzchok and Rivkah faced a terrible and painful void in their life, and each day they renewed their request to beget children, but more importantly they sought to find the greatness of G-d in their challenge, in their suffering. The vacuum never diminished but merely intensified, but at the same time they increased their connection as they persisted to find deeper and more profound bond with G-d.


Their growth lay in their ability to perceive His presence, despite the frustration, by gaining a sharper perception of G-d and His ways each and every day of their lives. Until finally, they were transformed and became someone very different than they were when their ordeal began and thus free from the shackles of the former decree.


The root of the word ויעתר, and he entreated, the Talmud points out is עתר, a pitchfork, because just as a pitchfork is used to turn the grain from one spot to another, so too does prayer turn the attitude of G-d from, מדת אכזריות למדת רחמנות, a characteristic of cruelty to one of compassion. (סוכה יד.)


G-d is never ‘cruel’, it is merely in our frustrated pain that He may appear as if He is indifferent. The word אכזר being a contraction of the words, אך זר, just estranged. But those who can move the ‘haystack’ from its former spot and view it from a new place and perspective will discover the ‘needle’ in the haystack, that He is always compassionate. It is we who change, not G-d.


ויעתר possesses the same letters as the Aramaic word רְעותִי, My will, because one who aligns his will with His, will be transformed and may affect change.


It was precisely this tension between the attribute of Avraham and that of Yitzchok that G-d sought to overlap in a message for eternity. We must exhibit the sterling kindness of Avraham in infusing a world of cruelty, indifference and callous and coarse attitudes with generosity of spirit, tolerance and understanding. But that must come with an equally heightened level of self-discipline, certainly in controlling our emotions and actions but most importantly in that which is the healthy foundation of those skills; in our perception of G-d and acceptance of the challenges we face as exquisite expressions of His absolute love.


It is no easy task, but that is why we are here and privileged to carry the banner of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in bringing a chaotic world to peace and serenity and the awareness of our unparalleled Father in Heaven.


באהבה,


צבי יהודה טייכמאן