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Parashat Toldot - Barrenness and Prayer

Barrenness and Prayer

Further thoughts on Parashat Toldot

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

The Jewish sages assumed that there are no "unnecessary words" in the written Torah. All 304,805 letters are carefully counted by the soferim (scribes).  Moreover, Yeshua spoke about "kotzo shel Yod" (קוֹצוֹ שֶׁל יוֹד), that is, the smallest stroke atop the smallest Hebrew letter, in order to stress that every detail of God's revelation has its purpose (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17). Every "jot and tittle" has its place, and this implies that words spelled in unusual ways, the exact order of words in a phrase, and various textual oddities (such as redundant words, oversized or undersized letters, etc.) were intended to teach us something we might otherwise not have known.

 

Our Torah portion this week begins with a description of the birth of Jacob and Esau. Isaac and Rebekah had been married for twenty years but were still without an heir to carry on the family line. The Torah then states that "Isaac entreated the LORD before his wife, because she was barren" (Gen. 25:21). The sages asked why the Torah mentioned the prayer before mentioning its purpose. Wouldn't it have made more sense to first mention that Rebekah was barren and then to say that Isaac prayed for her?

The Talmud states that Rebekah was barren because God desires the prayers of the righteous. God made them barren in order to cause them to seek His face. Since Isaac was sixty years old when the twins were born (Gen. 25:26), and he had married Rebekah at age forty (Gen. 25:20), we know that they had waited twenty years for the birth of their first descendants. Twenty years is a long time to wait, especially when the promise of the heir of Abraham and Isaac (and therefore the Messiah) is at stake.  Rabbi Bachaya said that the prayer offered by Isaac was the goal all along, and the barrenness was the divinely appointed means to that end.  The Torah alludes to this by saying that Isaac first prayed before explaining his reason for doing so.
 

טוֹב־לִי כִי־עֻנֵּיתִי לְמַעַן אֶלְמַד חֻקֶּיךָ

tov  li khi-u·ne·ti,  le·ma·an  el·mad  chu·ke·kha
 

"It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes."
(Psalm 119:71)
 


The LORD wants us to be in a personal relationship with Him, and therefore He sometimes sends temporal affliction to remind us of our eternal need.... After all, is there anything worse than to be "forgotten" by God? Can there be any worse punishment in this life than to be untouched by need, suffering and testing?  Indeed, it is curse to be devoid of need before the LORD, and affliction is a blessing in disguise. As A.W Tozer once wrote, "It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He's hurt him deeply."  This is why, as the Talmud comments, the manna fell once a day during the 40 years, and not once a year, as we might have desired:
 

    The students of bar Yochai asked him: Why did the manna not fall once a year [as opposed to once a day]? He answered, I will give you a parable: It can be compared to a mortal king who had a son for whom he provided food once a year; as a result, he saw his son but once a year. Thereupon he provided for his maintenance daily, so that he called upon him every day. The same is with Israel. One who had four or five children would worry and say, 'Perhaps no manna will fall tomorrow, and we will all die of hunger.' Thus they turned their faces to heaven in prayer (Yoma 76a).
     

Just as God humbled Israel with manna in the desert, so He humbles us. "Give us this day our daily bread..."  The purpose of affliction is ultimately good and healing: God humbles us with manna so "that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3). In other words, God uses the discipline of affliction to lead us to the truth.  We often pray that our problems be taken away, but God sometimes ordains these very problems so that we will draw near to Him... Yeshua told us, "Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask Him."  Many of us are slow to learn, but God is patient with those whom He disciplines. The goal is to never lose sight of what's most important, which is God Himself.


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