What Does Prayer Accomplish?

Toledot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 13, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

What does prayer accomplish? How often have we prayed to no avail for the recovery of someone we loved dearly? I offer a personal experience as a partial answer.

Many years ago as a freshly minted rabbi, I served a two-year stint as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Year one could not have been more satisfying. Stationed at Ft. Dix, a sprawling basic training camp in the middle of New Jersey, I ministered to a large number of Jewish inductees at a very stressful moment in their lives. In addition, I managed to take off one day a week to continue my doctoral studies at Columbia in Jewish history. I was growing at a fast pace both rabbinically and intellectually.

In March of that year, however, my world caved in. Just a few days before the bris of my first-born son I received orders for Korea. To be sure, it was ten years after a precarious truce had settled on the divided peninsula, but South Korea still embodied all the poverty and primitiveness of an underdeveloped country. I was assigned to a logistical command in Taegu far south of Seoul. The military provided no housing for the families of officers. More cautious than my wife, I decided against living on the local economy and left my family, as most married officers did, in the States.

The entry into my new post proved exceedingly difficult for me. Physical accommodations in a roomy cabin with two other chaplains, one Protestant and the other Catholic, whom I liked, were comfortable enough. But I missed my family beyond words. I also discovered that there were very few Jewish personnel to serve and resented the interruption of my course work. The books I had brought with me to study outnumbered my congregants, and I played more tennis than ever before.

One evening some time after my arrival, I sat with my new clerical friends on the porch in a particularly sour mood of self-pity. Inwardly agitated, I had long fallen silent. At one point I excused myself to daven Maariv, not out of external obligation but because I desperately needed help. That evening I prayed as if my life were at stake. Slowly and intently I recited each word out loud, filling it with the contents of my own consternation.

By the time I finished, the pall had lifted and I felt immeasurably calmer. Moreover, to my astonishment, the unrelieved darkness was never to return. Thereafter, I was able to complete my tour of duty productively, garnering new experiences, reading a lot of books in several languages and even helping a few people in trouble. I have often reflected on that transformative moment in my life. My prayers yielded no miracle; the Pentagon did not issue new orders calling me home. Instead God chose to grant me the gift to endure what could not be changed. Praying helped me regain control of myself, the attitude I should take toward my fate. It imbued me with a blend of perspective, meaning and resignation to transcend my personal crisis. Indubitably, we are surrounded by formidable constraints. Decisive is not what happens to us but within us, and here praying can make a vast difference.

Given the inextricable connection between our inner and outer lives, between our spiritual and physical sides, prayer can at times determine the cause of our external well-being. At best this is how I prefer to understand the termination of Rebecca’s barrenness at the beginning of our parasha. I am struck by the central role of prayer in the story. In the course of a brief narrative, there are two instances where first Isaac and then Rebecca turn with ease and intimacy to God in prayer. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca reject the use of a concubine to expand their household. Instead, they implore God through prayer: “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived (Genesis 25:21).” It is not rationalizing to read this turn of events naturally. Rebecca had every right to be tense. An immigrant without family and married to a perfect stranger, Rebecca needed time to adjust to her new surroundings. The absence of children only compounded the tension. Prayer did not correct a medical problem; it alleviated a state of mind.

The Hebrew verb “va-ye’atar” denotes an act of intensive prayer, hence the translation “pleaded.” The midrash imagines both Isaac and Rebecca, each in a separate corner of the house, praying fervently and frequently. Their common recourse to prayer deepened their union and increased the likelihood of conception.

Similarly, once Rebecca is pregnant, she returns to God for relief in a state of great discomfort. Perspective offers solace: the destiny of the nation in formation is adumbrated in the entangled twins in her womb. Prayer yields the insight that makes the ephemeral endurable.

This is the wisdom that Isaac and Rebecca had learned from Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, the mother of Ishmael. For they lived by the spring where God had once lightened Hagar’s suffering. Although Sarah, still barren after ten years, had suggested to Abraham to impregnate her maid, once Hagar had become pregnant Sarah tormented her and Hagar fled. Suddenly by a spring on the road back to Egypt, God appeared to assure her that her travail was rife with larger meaning. The son she was about to bear would be the founder of a great nation and he was to be named Ishmael [God hears] “for the Lord had paid heed to your suffering (Genesis 16:11).” In turn, she called God “El-roi, the God who sees me (16:13)” and the spring “be’er lahai roi, the well where God took note of my life (16:14).”

In sum, God responds to human tears with meaning, not miracles. The laws imbedded in nature are not overturned for our benefit. God listens and illuminates for we are above all creatures of meaning. Understanding is the key to our salvation. In the immortal words of R. Akiva: “Humans are beloved, for they were created in God’s image. In fact, they are exceedingly beloved, for it was made known to them that they were created in God’s image (Pirkei Avot 3:18).”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tol’dot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.