I am indebted to Havolim for raising this point for discussion (link). Yitzchak and Rivka were barren, and our parsha opens with their praying for children. The language the Torah uses to describe Hashem’s response is, “Va’yeiaser lo Hashem,” which, as Rashi explains, implies that Hashem was so-to-speak coerced into giving in. The word “va’yeaser” is related to the word “atar,” a pitchfork – Chazal use the imagery of a pitchfork overturning a haystack of grain as a metaphor for the prayers of tzadikim overturning things. But why, asks Havolim, was Hashem’s response forthcoming only after this intense pleading of “va’yeaser”? As Havolim notes, "The expressions in Rashi clearly indicate that the success of these tefillos was contrary to some countervailing consideration." Why should that have been the case?
Before explaining what stood in the way of Yitzchak's tefilah being answered, first a little digression to explain what tefilah is or should be. We are used to thinking of tefilah as a means to get what we want from G-d, but the truth is that such an approach is almost an affront to the idea of prayer. Do we dare stand before G-d like little children who whine and plead and coax their parents to give in to their demands? The Zohar goes so far as to compare such tefilah to a dog barking, “Give! Give!” It is an act of selfishness, of self-centeredness.
So what then should we pray for if not for the fulfillment of our needs? The ideal prayer is selfless – we are not concerned with our own needs, but rather with G-d’s, kavyachol. The purpose of our world is to reveal G-d’s glory. So long as there is a chasm between G-d and the world as we see it, there is a need for prayer, because through prayer that divide is crossed. "Hashem, heal the sick, give us sustenance, bring us to Eretz Yisrael" – not because of our wants and needs, but because in doing so your presence will be felt more fully. Need is not a sibah for tefilah, but is merely a siman, a symptom of disconnect between G-d and the world. Tefilah seeks to remove that disconnect.
The Tiferes Shlomo has this idea in many places and briefly alludes to it in our parsha as well. Rivka feels pain in her womb. She responds, “Lamah zeh anochi – vateilech lidrosh es Hashem.” Strange – why go to a prophet instead of an OB/GYN? And why does the pasuk not even mention the word pain if that was Rivka’s concern? The Tif Shlomo therefore reads Rivka’s question not as, “Why am I feeling pain?” but rather, more literally, “Why is there an 'I'," i.e. why am I concerned only with myself, my own needs, my own ego?” As the Mishna in Sanhedrin tells us, G-d suffers with man. Rivka went to seek G-d, i.e. she directed her attention to the suffering of G-d, not her own. This is tefilah.
We’ve scaled the mountain, we’ve transcended human suffering and pain and need and want and see only the pain of the Shechina, the suffering of G-d’s presence longing to unite with the world. Despite climbing to the greatest heights, we're still not done, as there is still one more obstacle to our tefilah being accepted. Now that we’re on top of the mountain, comes the Noam Elimelech and tells us, “Come down to earth” – don’t forget that there are real people with real needs who experience real suffering.
Yitzchak Avinu was up there in the celestial spheres. His tefilos were “l’nochach ishto,” they were the opposite of those of Rivka, who was davening simply, “ki akarah hi,” because she felt that human pain of being childless. Yitchak was divorced from such “petty” personal suffering, personal pain, personal want. But davka because of his lofty vision, his tefilah in this case was lacking.
I’m not sure my analogy does justice to the point, but I’ll try it anyway – imagine someone who says “refa’einu” having in mind deep, mystical kavanos for that tefilah, but who forgets about the actual sick person who needs the refu’ah. We might admire such a person's spirituality, but their humanity seems wanting.
Havolim writes, “Rashi says that the tefilla turned the world upside down; it wasn't just a krias yam suf, a revolutionary upheaval; it was a metamorphosis of Hashem's will, kaviyachol.” I agree – “vaye’aser,” the pitchfork of tefilah turned the world upside down – but it wasn’t Hashem’s will that was turned upside down, but rather, "lo," it was Yitzchak Avinu’s. It was Yitzchak Avinu who had to experience the metamorphosis. Yitzchak had to reconnect with his own humanity, to forget G-d’s needs for a moment and concentrate on his own –- he had to feel that personal, human longing for offspring and express that in his tefilah. “Retzon yer’ei’av ya’aseh” -- Hashem recreates the tzadik’s “ratzon,” that simple desire to have something, because a prayer that emanates from spiritual heights but loses sight of the ground below is incomplete. More than that – without the recognition of human need, human suffering, there can be no prayer at all.
At the risk of dilluting the N.A.’s point I just want to add two additional cents. I think this lesson is that much more appropriate given the context of Yitzchak's praying to have children. Yitzchak must have realized the tikunim and achievements a son like Ya’akov Avinu would bring to the world, and I would guess that these kavanos were part of what he had in mind in his tefilah – the completion of the triumvirate of chessed, gevurah, and tiferes, etc. However, all those lofty and deep kavanos do not help change a dirty diaper; thinking about the pain of the Shechina doesn’t help at 4:00 AM when a child is crying. Raising children requires hands-on roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty type work. Hashem had to use his pitchfork to overturn Yitzchak, to change him from a spiritual giant into a man who just wanted the opportunity to change diapers.