Thursday, October 25, 2012

lessons in tefilah from Avraham and Sarah

After Hagar gave birth to Yishmael she began to suspect that perhaps the reason Sarah did not have a child was because Sarah was not as righteous as she appeared. Sarah complained to Avraham, "Chamasi alecha!" (16:5). The word "chamas" literally means theft. What did Avraham steal? Rashi explains that Sarah accused Avraham of davening on his own behalf and not hers as well. Therefore, he was blessed with a child through Hagar but she remained barren.

A number of chiddushim worthy of attention here:

1) Theft does not just mean taking something that doesn't belong to you; it can also mean withholding something that should be given to another. Whether it's a tefilah for someone, a compliment, a good word, a good deed -- not responding with empathy and kindness to another's plight robs them of the chessed deserved (Rav Shach in Machsheves Mussar elaborates on this point a few times). My wife recently cited in one of
her posts the Zohar in Parshas Tazriya (87): Just as a person is punished for hurtful speech, so too is one punsihed for not speaking well of someone when afforded the opportunity to do so (see Sefas Emes (Metzora 5661)).

2) The gemara (Yevamos 64) tells us that Sarah was physically incapable of having children. It would take no less than a miracle for her to have become pregnant. One would have thought that it would be a waste of breath to even daven for such an impossible turn of events. Nonetheless, explains R' Nosson Wachtfogel, Avraham should have davened. There is no limit to what we can ask of Hashem in our tefilos. Of course, he may not give us what we want -- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask.

3) It is almost impossible to believe that Avraham did in fact daven only for himself and not for Sarah. The reason Avraham is criticized becomes apparent when we contrast his behavior with the Torah's description of the tefilah of Yitzchak for Rivka. "Vaye'etar Yitzchak l'Hashem l'nochach ishto" --the Torah makes specific mention of the fact that Yitzchak davened opposite his wife, within her proximity.  Avraham of course davened for Sarah -- but he never let her know he was davening for her. The Torah is telling is that it's sometimes not enough to just care; we also need to let the other person know it.  (It was entirely by chance that I saw this idea quoted
here by R' Tzvi Shiloni, a RA"M in YNA, in the name of his father and then it dawned on me this R' Shiloni and I were in 9th grade together,which is neither here nor there.)


  1. Anonymous5:39 AM

    >>> 3) -- but he never let her know

    Rashi's note to 16:5 refers to 15:2 --
    where in the latter pasuk are the hidden "Sarai"/"she"/"her"/"we" that Avraham
    should've made obvious to Sarah?

  2. "3) It is almost impossible to believe that Avraham did in fact daven only for himself and not for Sarah."

    To bolster Anonymous' comment, Avraham did say: "Ma Titen Li, va-Anokhi Holekh Ariri"( "what will You give me, seeing I go childless").

    Also, even later( in 17:18) Avraham is quite willing to accept from God the lesser reward of Yishma'el inheriting him, instead of the greater miracle, of Sarah giving birth at such an old age, that was being offered.

  3. I assume Rav Wachtfogel addresses this issue, but the question of whether it is proper/not proper/bracha levatala to daven for a miracle is very relevant here. For example, from R R Margolios' Nefesh Chaya to OC 187, here.
    where he says the following:

    סע׳ ד׳ ויאמר הרחמן הוא יעשה לנו נסים וכי׳ אם כי אין לבקש על הנס דאין מזכירים מעשה נסים ברכות ס׳ ואפילו בשביל צבור עיין ירו׳ תענית פ'ג ה'ב, נראה שיש לחלק בין צבור לכלל ישראל עיין רש׳י מגילה ג ריש עמוד ב ד״ה הא דרבים, ובגמ׳ פסתים סיד עיב אביי אמר ננעלו ' [דלתות העזרה] תנן רבא אמר נועלין תנן, מאי בינייהו, איכא בינייהו למיסמך אניסא וכו/ ועיין בהוריות ייא ע״ב בשמן המשתה ש

  4. "The word 'chamas' literally means theft. What did Avraham steal? Rashi explains that Sarah accused Avraham of davening on his own behalf and not hers as well. Therefore, he was blessed with a child through Hagar but she remained barren."

    I'd like to point out, that though Rashi( in his firs Perush to "Chamasi Aleikha") does say that "Sarah accused Avraham of davening on his own behalf ...", he infers, in giving her words, that the Chamas was not done by Avraham( she even says, when giving him Hager: "Hineh-Na Atzarani ha-Shem mi-Ledet"), but the Onesh is upon him. Basically, according to Rashi here, she was saying: "It's your fault Hagar was given a child, and not me, for you should have asked ...". She wasn't saying: "You 'stole' my[ chance to have a] child, for you should have asked ...", as you seem to suggest.

    When Rashi says that Sarah accused Avraham of "stealing", it in his second Perush, when he gives Sarah to be accusing Avraham of not standing up for her, against Hagar's belittling of her, thus stealing( in the sense of 'depriving') from her his words of reprimand against Hagar. This, in my opinion, actually fits better with your first Chidush.

    "2. ... Avraham should have davened[ for Sarah]."

    I'm not so sure about that:
    a. Midrash Rabah( 45:4), and Midrash Tanchuma( Toldot 9), say that the Imahot were made barren, because God desired their prayer, and although when both Yitzchaq and Rivqah prayed, only Yitzchaq was answered( see Rashi on 25:21), that was because he was of "better pedigree" than Rivqah. Not so Sarah, who was of no less Yichus than Avraham. She should have taken responsibility for her own praying for baring a child.
    b. As Anonymous, and I, mentioned above the "prayer" Sarah was referring to, was actually a response\question to God's promise of a great reward. Up until that point, God's promise to Avraham's descendants did not mention, or infer, that they would be through Sarah, and Avraham "prayed" in the same Lashon( male and singular) that God gave his promises to him. The question should be: Should Avraham have given God extra conditions, to his accepting the Matanah offered?
    ( Where I come from they say:"You don't look a gift horse in the mouth")
    c. Regardless of Avraham's failure to include Sarah in his "prayer" to God, and in spite of his willingness to settle for Yishma'el inheriting God's blessings to him( in 17:18), God insists that His blessings will be fulfilled through a son born of Sarah. So, in the end, she got her desire without his help, and in spite of his intentions.

  5. Anonymous11:18 PM

    what does he who taught that Sarah lacked a beis vlad/womb, 2) above, do with
    --Avraham's shock in 17:17, concerning Sarah's advanced age?
    more shocking would be her lack of a uterus! (if you say that at the time, only The Omniscient Narrator knew of Sarah's deficiency, then
    Avraham didn't know what fix to pray for)
    --the cessation of Sarah's menstrual cycle, 18:11? if she had no womb,
    her cycle never began!
    ...& wouldn't a miracle womb have listed in Avos 5:8, among those things
    created during twilight of day 6? (listed instead of ha'keshes perhaps??)

  6. Tmir and Anon,
    I amazed that you really think that Avraham Avinu, the exemplar of chessed, would be so callous as to ignore his own wife's desire for a child.
    On 18:3 see the Netziv. Avraham was saying what good is a child if I do not have time to raise that child and implant my values within him. 17:18 is irrelevant - Avraham was saying that he does not have the zechuyos to merit a child, not that he ejects the promise of Yitzchak in favor of Yishmael (again, I don't even see how you can have such a hava amina that Avraham would reject a promise from G-d, but maybe that's just me.) Of course Saraha davened for herself, as did Rivka, but that is irrelevant to the moral obligation upon others, esp their husbands, to also pray for them or anyone else in need. You seem to focus on diyukim (that can be understood in other ways) rather than grasp the larger picture that A) praying for others is an ethical imperitive and B) barring overwhelmingly clear evidence to the contrary it is unthinkable to ascibe an ethical lapse to the Avos.

    B, I did not think of that, but Avraham would be the embodiment of the Klal at this point anyway.

    1. Anonymous6:25 PM

      comment 1 implied only that Avraham mightn't have prayed for his wife at 15:2, not that he never davened for her altogether
      [it also allowed for the remote possibility of a hidden "she", as in Avraham's "anochi" including Sarah, although the two hadn't yet become one flesh through a child in common]

      if one takes 15:2 & 15:3 together, it sounds as though Avraham
      is concerned about a material heir to >his< property, be it current assets, or land to come;
      Sarah however, somehow privy to the exchange there, heard otherwise*-- after 15:2, Hashem made no reply, giving
      Avraham opportunity to put in a good word for his wife, but Avraham practically repeated himself in 15:3, to advance the material dialogue that he thought relevant at that time

      *Sarah already knows (as only a woman can, & she a prophetic woman at that) at 12:3, that Avraham was chosen for special material blessing precisely because he would be the model
      husband (who remembers his wife!)/family man for all the families of the earth, as borne out by 18:17-19

      whether or not point 1) above is "an ethical imperitive", it's
      certainly a great & powerful conception of things, though it
      exist in uneasy tension with Chazal's reformulation of "V'ahavta l're'acha kamocha" as posted here on Aug. 2, paragraph 1...

    2. O.K., I'll accept Avraham was praying for Sarah to have a child. But, then, why say he didn't tell her?

      He possibly recounted to her his exchange with God, recorded in Ch. 15, for her to have known about it( though she could have become privy to it through prophecy), so it stands to reason that he told her of others, where he more explicitly asked for her sake.

      Her accusation was about what we know he said( in 15:2), regardless of his intention, and says nothing directly about whether he prayed for her, or told her about it.

      So, if "barring overwhelmingly clear evidence to the contrary it is unthinkable to ascibe an ethical lapse to the Avos", why say he didn't tell her?

  7. I realized it's not really relevant, because the Gemara in Brachos 60 asks from Leah's tefilla that her child's gender be changed, and the Gemara answers "don't ask me kashes from nissim." Evidently, the tefillos of the Avos for nissim is irrelevant to us, just as Chanina ben Dosa's idea of Teva is very different than ours.

  8. As Tamir explained, the first pshat in Rashi is chamasi (the insult done to me - by Hagar) alecha (the punishment for that sin should be on you -not Hagar - you are responsible because you didn't... etc.). The implication of this is that Sarai was fine with the situation up until she was insulted by Hagar. She's not complaining about not having a child - she's complaining about being insulted.
    Ok, so there are several problems with the midrash - but I don't think you want to solve a problem by by directly contradicting the midrash. Per the midrash the complaint is כך, אילו אמרת ואנו הולכים ערירים, כמה דיהב לך, כן יהב לי, וכדו דאמרת: אנכי הולך ערירי, לך יהיב, ולי לא יהיב.
    Isn't this just a case of the midrash trying to hang a moral lesson onto a passuk and not an attempt by the midrash to explain pshat?

    Also, I think when you say "not responding with empathy and kindness to another's plight robs them of the chessed deserved" is going beyond what the midrash says. Looking at the mshalim brought by the midrash this looks more like "as long as you were requesting for yourself you could/should have included a request on my behalf also". Also, is the expression "chessed deserved" a bit of an oxymoron?