“Rabbi Isaac said: Why were our forefathers infertile? Because the Holy One Blessed is He desires the prayers of the righteous” (Yevamos 64a).
A towering personage raised a fascinating point. Apparently Abraham and Sarah were physically incapable of producing children. So why should prayer help? How can we expect G-d to change a condition that already exists in nature? As we say, “Ain somchim al ha nes… we do not rely on a miracle” (see Pesachim 64b).
Apparently, in response to the prayer of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, G-d was actually willing to alter nature! In the words of the great personage, “We are accustomed to thinking that prayer comes on account of troubles, yet the … opposite is true: troubles come because of prayer. G-d brings troubles upon us because He wants the prayers of the righteous.”
He applies this to today’s troubles, in which we also face an “impossible” existential challenge. The Children of Ishmael (as well as the Children of Esau) are rising up against us on a worldwide scale. They have metamorphosed miraculously from nomadic desert tribes into an aggressive culture which is attempting to dominate the entire world. Not only that, but they are willing to die to accomplish their goal.
We learn from the Patriarchs and Matriarchs how to save ourselves.
In the same way that Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah prayed successfully to escape from seemingly impossible situations, so we, their descendants, can learn from them that, if we pray with sufficient intensity and seriousness, we can similarly beg G-d to overturn “the facts of nature” in order to save us!
Ishmael is known for his power of prayer. After all, his own life was spared when an angel was dispatched to answer his mother, Hagar, in the desert (Genesis 16:7ff). So Ishmael’s origin is also rooted in prayer. But there is a difference between Ishmael’s prayer and ours.
Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt”l says, “The difference between prayer with conscious intention and prayer without conscious intention is like the difference between life and death” (Moadei Hashanah, page 13).
When we pray the silent prayer we try to resemble an angel. “And Rabbi Yose the son of Rabbi Chanina said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov: one who prays must align his legs so that they are side by side, thus emulating angels” (Berachos 10b). An angel has no evil inclination, no distracting thoughts which might tempt him to stray from the service of G-d. When we pray, we try to imitate that. The ultimate example is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when, like angels, we try to rise above our material desires. We want our intellect to “point in the same direction” as the words we are uttering, going straight upwards to the Throne of Glory. This is a challenge, especially in this age of multiple distractions and constant stress.
But imagine if our life is at stake. I apologize for this example, but, if someone were rushing at us with a knife, G-d forbid, we would cry out with “all our heart and all our soul …” the words, “Ana Hashem hoshia na …. Please G-d save me now!” (Psalm 118)
G-d has saved us from the time of Abraham and Sarah through thousands of years of exile with constant challenges on every level. According to “logic,” there should be no Jews today, but we are not only here but we are keeping G-d’s Torah. This miracle comes about because we are constantly crying out to G-d as our Fathers and Mothers did.
Ishmael’s prayer is totally different. A “pe’re adam” is a unique being. A friend wrote me a particularly descriptive letter last week: “Ishmael will be a wild ass dressed up as a human, which means that at times he will look in the mirror and see a human shell …. However his essence is a wild ass and that is how he usually behaves.”
The prayer of a “pe’re adam” cannot resemble the prayer of the Jewish People. Hagar’s prayer did not produce miraculous results: the angel simply showed her a source of water which had existed previously but which she had not seen (Genesis 21:19). However, in the case of our Fathers and Mothers, G-d actually changed reality.
The Torah uses the following words when G-d informs Abraham about the future birth of Ishmael: “v’al pnai kol echav yishkon … and over all his brothers he shall dwell,” (Genesis 16:12), which, says Rashi, indicates “that his offspring shall be great.”
In our Torah portion, however, which describes the end of Ishmael’s life, there is an almost identical verse but with one crucial change. As it says, “These were the years of Ishmael’s life … he expired and he died and … al kol echav nafal … over all his brothers he fell” (Genesis 25:17-18). The Torah uses the word, “nafal … fell” instead of “dwell”. The next words (the first words in the following Torah portion), are “these are the generations of Isaac …” (Genesis 25:19), about which the Baal haTurim says that Ishmael will fall in the End of days to the Messiah, the descendant of Isaac.
Ishmael’s life began with a prophecy of greatness, but ends with defeat. In the words of King David, “Some with chariots and some with horses, but we call out in the Name of the L-rd our G-d. They dropped to their knees and fell but we arose and were invigorated” (Psalm 20).
When we pray with conscious intention, G-d changes nature to enable His Children to live. May our prayers be worthy of the Children of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and may we soon see the complete Redemption of our People with the coming of the Messiah!