Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Prayer and Needs
"And G-d saw that Leah was not loved greatly (see Ramban and Ralbag), and He opened her womb, and Rachel was barren (29:31)." This passage's structure is not parallel. One would expect the pasuk to read "and G-d opened Leah's womb, and closed Rachel's." Furthermore, most women are able to conceive and bear children. One would therefore expect the following: "and Hashem allowed Leah to have children, and He closed Rachel's womb."
Malbim, commenting on this passage, provides an answer that sheds light on a fascinating, often overlooked, aspect of prayer. The Talmud in Yevamot (64a) comments on the reason that many of the Avot and Imahot were barren at first: "R. Yitzchak states: Hakadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One) desires the prayer of the righteous." Hence, according the the original plan, Leah too should have been temporarily barren. But since Hashem wanted to increase the love between Ya'akov and Leah, he gave her children right away, and circumvented the "normal," patriarchical procedure. Rachel remained barren according to the original plan until she would pray to G-d. When she finally did, she was granted children (see 30:22).
Perhaps we can gain a deeper insight into t'fila (prayer) upon further analysis of the idea of Hashem withholding children from the Avot and Imahot until they prayed.. T'fila -- in the words of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l -- is "Man's rendezvous with G-d." It is an end in and of itself. By talking to G-d, Man develops his relationship with Him. As such, even if there is no specific need about which to beseech the Creator, and even if the requests are not granted, it serves a lofty purpose. Hence, t'fila is called avodah sheb'laiv, Divine service of the heart (see Mishna Avot (1:2) and commentaries there, Rambam Hilchot T'fila 1:1). However, Man does not always turn to G-d unless there is a need. Even with regard to those who do pray regularly, the concentration and fervor invested into the prayer is most definitely intensified by a specific need. Indeed, according to both Rambam (Hilchot Ta'aniyot (1:1), and Ramban (Glosses to Seifer HaMitzvot (Mitzva 5)), there is a separate commandment to pray in a time of tragedy. This distinct obligation highlights this aspect of prayer which stems from need. Hence, Hashem will often temporarily withhold that which He wishes to bestow upon His creations, in order that the human being first turn to him in prayer. It is not surprising then, that our great Avot and Imahot were recipients of this aspect of Divine love.
Many Jewish thinkers have asked a twofold question concerning the nature of prayer in general (see N'tiv Bina by Rabbi Y. Ya'acovson, Chapter 2): "If the supplicant deserves what he is asking for, then why need he beseech G-d for it? If, on the other hand, he is not worthy of receiving his request, then how does prayer help?" The approach of Malbim, based on the words of Chazal, provides a ready answer for the first half of the question. Even if the person deserves a certain divine blessing, G-d waits for the lines of communication to be opened before granting the gift.
A similar approach is offered by Rabbeinu B'chaye on last week's Parashat Toldot. There we read: "And Yitzchak beseeched G-d opposite his wife, for she was barren (25:21)." This passage, too, seems out of order. In describing the sequence of events, a more logical order would have been: "And Rivka, the wife of Yitzchak was barren. [Therefore], Yitzchak prayed to G-d for her." This would indicate the proper sequence of cause and effect. R. B'chaye resolves this difficulty based on the aforementioned concept. G-d desired the prayers of Yitzchak and Rivka; this was the desired result. In order to bring about this goal, He caused Rivkah to be temporarily barren. With this explanation, the passage reads in a perfectly logical order. The goal was Yitzchak's prayer. The means of achieving it was Rivkah's barrenness.
Rav C. Y. Goldwicht zt"l, the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, used this concept to explain a cryptic comment of Rashi on the blessings of Yitzchak to Ya'akov. "V'yitein l'cha ha'Elokim" -- "And G-d should give you (27:28)." Noting the extra "and," Rashi, quoting the Midrash, writes: "yitein v'yachzor v'yiten" -- "He should give and give again." The deeper meaning of this statement is that the greatest blessing that Yitzchak wished to give was the blessing of a constant relationship with G-d. G-d should give, stop giving, wait for you to turn to him in prayer, and then give again. This is in contrast to the curse of the Biblical snake, who was to "eat dirt forever (3:14)." Now, how is this a curse? Wouldn't the snake be guaranteed an eternal source of sustenance? Rather, G-d wished to banish the snake from His presence. This is similar to a father who, angered with his son, gives him a $100,000 check and tells him: "Here, this will provide for you. Now, leave my house and never come back to me again!" To those whom G-d loves, He wishes to give a little at a time to ensure a mutual, lasting bond. This is similar to a father who gives his child a weekly allowance in order that the child constantly return to him.
This approach to prayer should serve to allow us to deal more effectively with adversity. If we view the trials of life as demonstrations of Hashem's love for us, we can view them in a more positive light. G-d may often just be waiting for us to turn to Him in prayer, and then He he will grant us His abundant blessings.