The Rabbis respond. They offer interpretations. They search the Bible for examples. They dwell in particular on Hannah and her prayer for a child. Her words teach us how to petition God. In the Book of Samuel, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, Hannah pours out the bitterness of her soul (I Samuel 1). The Rabbis thought this to be the most heartfelt of prayers: a woman longing to give birth to a child.
Rabbi Eleazer even imagines Hannah saying:
Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that You have created in a woman, You have not created one without a purpose, eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to work, legs with which to walk, breasts with which to nurse. (And I would add: a mind with which to think!) These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to nurse a child? Please, give me a child, so that I may nurture life. (Berachot 31b)We read this week about Rebekah. She too has difficulty conceiving. Unlike Hannah, she does not pray for a child. Instead it is her husband Isaac who prays. Here, the Hebrew word “to pray” is not the usual l’hitpalel – often interpreted as to examine oneself – but va-yae’tar, to supplicate. The former connotes looking into one’s soul as one reaches toward God. The latter implies the more familiar image of falling on one’s knees and calling out to God.
And so Isaac prostrates himself in prayer. Both Isaac and Hannah’s prayers are answered. Each is granted a child. The prophet Samuel, who later anoints King David, is born to Hannah and Elkanah. Rebekah and Isaac are blessed with twins: Jacob and Esau.
When does Rebekah pray? Only after she conceives. She prays when she is in pain and the children struggle in her womb. She challenges God with the words, “If this is so, why do I exist? And she went to seek (l’drosh) the Lord.” (Genesis 25:22) Rebekah actively seeks out God. The image is not like that of Isaac and Hannah. Rebekah stands before God and demands that God explain her struggle. Why does it hurt so much? Why do these children fight with each other?
She calls God to account. What chutzpah! And God responds to her prayer with the words: “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The response to Hannah’s prayer is a child. To Rebekah’s prayer, God offers words. God answers Rebekah’s prayer with a promise that comes to shape the destiny of her children and her children’s children. Rebekah takes these very words to heart when she instructs her son Jacob to trick Esau out of his rightful inheritance and blessing. (Genesis 27) The trickery that she masterminds is her human attempt, however flawed, to live up to the words she hears. Although she might appear conniving, and perhaps even devious, she actively struggles to fulfill God’s words.
And this is our hope as well – to struggle to live by God’s words, to discern what God wants of us. The difficulty is that while the words themselves might appear clear, what we make of them is not so obvious. We must interpret. God does not tell Rebekah how, when or where – only what. This is why we, like Rebekah, depend on study and interpretation (drash!). When we seek God, and what God wants of us, we therefore look to the Torah.
As Jews we scrutinize these words of Torah in order to decipher God’s purpose. And as Jews we must try to live by our understanding of God’s Torah.
If you desire words to live by, pray like Rebekah. If you want miracles, pray like Hannah. The choice is yours: you can be the passive recipient of God’s miracles or the active participant in shaping your destiny and the history of future generations. That is Rebekah’s mighty example! And that is the model I choose to emulate.
Telech l’drosh – go and seek God in the words of Torah. Go and interpret God’s words. Go and follow the example of Rebekah.