• Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

It is in Parashat Toledot that we first encounter man praying to God:

And Yitzchak entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rivka his wife conceived. (Bereishit 25:21)


At this point, as with every mention of prayer, a serious difficulty arises: How can prayer alter a divine decree? Yitzchak's prayer appears to have changed God's will. There are many other examples of such prayers in Scripture. The most striking example is the prayer of Chizkiyahu:

In those days Chizkiyahu fell mortally sick. And the prophet Yeshayahu the son of Amotz came to him, and said to him, Thus says the Lord, Set your house in order; for you shall die, and not live. Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, I beseech You, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before You in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Your sight. And Chizkiyahu wept bitterly. And it came to pass, before Yeshayahu was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, Turn back and tell Chizkiyahu the prince of My people. Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears: behold I will heal you: on the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. And I will add to your days fifteen years; and I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Ashur; and I will defend this city for My sake, and for My servant David's sake. (II Melakhim 20:1-6)

How did Chizkiyahu's prayer change God's balanced and righteous decree? Rabbi Yosef Albo, author of Sefer Ikkarim, formulates the question as follows:

The reason which leads men to doubt the efficacy of prayer is the same as that which leads them to deny God's knowledge. Their argument is as follows: Either God has determined that a given person shall receive a given benefit, or He has not so determined. If He has determined there is no need of prayer; and if He has not determined, how can prayer avail to change God's will that He should now determine to benefit the person, when He had not so determined before? (Sefer Ikkarim, IV, chap. 18)

And in the words of Immanuel Kant:

It is, further, not only a preposterous but also a presumptuous illusion to try to divine whether, through the persistent importunity of one's request, God cannot be diverted (to our present advantage) from the plan of His wisdom. (Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) [1]

Indeed, regarding the specific case involving the patriarch Yitzchak, the Sages suggested the following answer:

Rabbi Yitzchak stated: Why were our ancestors barren? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous. Rabbi Yitzchak further stated: Why is the prayer of the righteous compared to a pitchfork? As a pitchfork turns the sheaves of grain from one position to another, so does the prayer of the righteous turn the dispensations of the Holy One, blessed be He, from the attribute of anger to the attribute of mercy. (Yevamot 64a)

If we accept the notion that God denied the patriarchs children because He longed for their prayers, we can then understand why their prayers were capable of changing the situation: From the very outset they had never deserved to be barren. This resolution, however, raises other – no less serious - problems regarding the way God runs the world. And in any event, the very same Rabbi Yitzchak who suggested this answer resolutely asserts in the continuation of the passage that the prayers of the righteous can indeed effect God, and so we are back to where we started.

Rabbi Yosef Albo's answer to the question reflects the classic position of Jewish thought:

The influences from above come down upon the recipient when he is in a certain degree and state of preparation to receive them. And if a person does not prepare himself, he withholds the good from himself... Our idea, therefore, is that when a benefit is determined in favor of any one, it is conditional upon a certain degree of right conduct. This must be taken to be a general principle as regards the promises of the Torah. In the same way, when a certain evil is determined upon some one, it is also conditional upon his being wicked in a certain degree or of being predisposed to it. And if the degree of wickedness or predisposition thereto changes, the predetermined event or fate changes also necessarily for the better or the worse... In this way it is clear that prayer and right conduct help to prepare the person to receive the good influence or to nullify the evil that has been decreed concerning him, because he changes from the evil state in which he was... As for the objection that the divine will can not be changed by prayer, the answer is that the divine will in the first place is that the decree should be realized if the person in question continues in the same state, and that the decree should be changed if the person's state changes. (Sefer Ikkarim, ibid.)

Rabbi Yosef Albo explains that we are merely dealing here with a precise calculation of merits: When a person prays, God does not answer his prayers because of His love for him or because of the personal connection that was established between them. Rather, a person's prayers add to the sum of his merits, so that he now deserves additional reward which can alter the decree that had been issued against him. A person could just as well give charity or redeem a first-born ass, and the results would be the same. It must be admitted, however, that a person who is engaged in prayer does not feel this way, nor is this the impression we are left with from a reading of Scripture. When Moshe entreats God to show mercy to the children of Israel, Scripture implies that God answered his prayer because of that prayer, and not because Moshe's merit tilted the balance and overcame the sin of all Israel regarding the Golden Calf. This is explicitly stated by one of the Rishonim, Rabbi Chisdai Crescas, in his Or ha-Shem:

The tenet that hangs upon this mitzva is that we must believe that the Blessed One listens to the entreaty of him who prays and truly places his trust in Him... For while he is not worthy nor does he deserve to receive what he wants without prayer, with prayer – in addition to the reward for the mitzva – it is possible for him to attain it, since he truly places his trust in Him. (Or ha-Shem, III, pt. II, chap. 1)[2]

Crescas states explicitly that there are times when God answers prayer, not because the person by his very act of prayer added to his list of merits, but because God responds directly to the supplications of one who turns to Him in prayer and puts his trust in Him. This is difficult to understand from a theological perspective, but this seems to be the plain sense of Scripture, as well as the plain understanding of the heart. When we pray to God we feel that He listens to our prayers, and we hope that He will answer them in the same way, as it were, that a person fulfils a request made by a friend, and not because of a reckoning of our merits and failings.

It is important to understand that in any event, according to all opinions, we are not dealing here with magic, that is to say, an attempt to force God in some way to bestow His goodness upon us. It is clear that in the end recompense is in God's hands and depends upon His will and love. Another point that distinguishes between Jewish prayer and magic is the emphasis Jewish prayer places on intention, as opposed to the powers of a text and the manner in which it is uttered.


We shall now bring some of the original ideas of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the topic of prayer.


As is well known, Rambam and Ramban disagree about whether or not there ian obligation to pray by Torah law. Rambam claims that there is a positive Torah precept to pray every day, and Ramban counters that the Torah obligation to pray applies only in times of acute distress.

Rabbi Soloveitchik makes a daring suggestion regarding the mitzva of prayer:

The views of Maimonides and Nachmanides can be reconciled. Both regarded prayer as meaningful only if it is derived from a sense of "tzara" [=distress]. They differ in their understanding of the word. Maimonides regarded daily life itself as being existentially in straits, inducing in the sensitive person feelings of despair, a brooding sense of life's meaninglessness, absurdity, lack of fulfillment. It is persistent "tzara," which exists "bekhol yom," daily. The word "tzara" connotes more than external trouble... Certainly, the Psalmist's cry, "Min hama'amakim karati Yah," "Out of my straits, I have called upon the Lord" (Tehilim 118:5), refers to an inner, rather than an externally induced, state of constriction and oppression.

Out of this sense of discomfiture prayer emerges. Offered in comfort and security, prayer is a paradox, modern methods of suburban worship and plush synagogues notwithstanding. The desire for proximity of wife and children at services comes from a need for security and comfort. Real prayer is derived from loneliness, helplessness, and a sense of dependence. Thus, while Nachmanides dealt only with surface crisis – "tzarot tzibbur," public distress, Maimonides regarded all life as a "depth crisis," a "tzarat yachid." (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Reflections of the Rav, pp. 80-81)

Rabbi Soloveitchik proposes that Rambam actually agrees with Ramban that what obligates man to pray is the sense of distress. According to Rambam, however, every day is a time of distress: internal trouble, discomfiture of the soul. Rabbi Soloveitchik understands that the defining characteristic of prayer is crying out from distress. Thus, he establishes two principles: 1) Prayer must stem from identification and agitation. 2) Prayer must emerge from a sense of distress, rather than from a feeling of comfort. Rabbi Soloveitchik expresses here a veiled criticism of "progressive" synagogues, insisting that it is not by chance that the traditional synagogue bars comfortable, pleasant, and happy family prayer. Prayer is not a social pastime, but rather the penetrating outcry of the individual in isolation.

It should be noted that Rabbi Soloveitchik rejects not only the seating arrangement in Reform synagogues, but also the style of the prayer and even the architecture of the synagogue. He finds profound meaning in all of these:

One must never sever service of the heart from life... As opposed to the church, Jewish synagogues never developed architectural and decorative elements to charm a person and cause him to fall into a sleepy state of supernaturalness... In our synagogues, partial darkness never ruled: the bright light of the sun was never kept out by narrow stain glassed windows. Rich sounds of organ playing and choir singing, hidden from the eyes of the congregation, never echoed in the synagogue in order to create an atmosphere of mystery. There was never an attempt to remove the Jew from the real world and bring him together with spirits. Just the opposite is true: We always demanded that prayer be an extension of a man's life, and that through it he admit the truth. Therefore, all the Catholic-Christian dramatization is so alien to our religious consciousness, and for this reason Halakha is so greatly opposed to what is called modernization of the prayer service, which wipes out all that is unique and original in the service of the heart. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Tefilatam shel Yehudim, Ma'ayanot VIII, p. 11)


Prayer has specific contents. Rambam rules that by Torah law, prayer has no fixed text, but nevertheless the Torah prescribes that certain themes must be included in prayer:

The obligation in this precept is that every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer; first uttering praises of God, then, with humble supplication and petition ask for all that he needs, and finally offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the benefits already bestowed upon him in rich measure. (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefila 1:2)

According to Rambam, the order of our Amida prayer is the order of prayer required by Torah law: praise, followed by petition, followed by praise and thanksgiving. The focus of prayer, as it was established by Chazal, is the middle section: the supplication. The great majority of the blessings are petitions for the fulfillment of our needs, spiritual needs as well as simple material needs. The emphasis that is placed upon needs and requests raises two problems: egoism and materialism. Indeed, in Chassidut as well as in other streams of Jewish thought, there are many who reject this focus upon man's needs:

A person should not pray for his needs; he should always pray only for the Shekhina that it should be redeemed from exile. And thus the Zohar refers to those who pray for themselves and not for the Shekhina, as greedy dogs who bark, "Give, give." (Maggid Devarav Le-Ya'akov, ed. Shatz, p. 81)

In a similar vein, one of the leading Musar masters, the Saba of Kelem, writes:

The purpose of prayer is to allow a person to see that everything comes from God, blessed be He... Asking for one's needs is only a way of reminding a person that every minute he is in the hand of God, may He be blessed. (Chokhma u-Musar II, 1)

The Saba of Kelem does not understand that the purpose of prayer is to proclaim the unity of God and redeem the Shekhina; rather, prayer has a spiritual-psychological effect. But he too argues that petitioning for one's needs is not really the focus of prayer. Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, understands that the nature of Jewish prayer and its focus upon petitioning for man's needs constitutes a fundamental principle in our general outlook:

As we have explained, prayer also requires praise and thanksgiving: nevertheless, the power and vitality of prayer lies in petition. Halakha is interested in psychosomatic man, in his actual body. It is not pleased by an ecstatic separation of the soul from the body during prayer... He cannot escape his material chains and petty needs, and any attempt to assign him such a task – his gain will be outweighed by his loss. Halakha deals with human beings dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death... Ordinary man is commanded to pray for the sick in his household, for his wine that turned sour, for his grain that was stricken. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "Ra'ayonot al ha-Tefila," Ish ha-Halakha – Galui ve-Nistar, p. 265)[3]

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues in many places that anyone who attempts to sever the true servant of God from the real world is making two mistakes: 1) When man is admonished to withdraw from the real world, he will usually not give up his material pursuits, but rather he will remove his day-to-day activities from the supervision of religion. This constitutes Rabbi Soloveitchik's major critique of Christianity. 2) A more substantial critique – God does not want man to be unconnected to this world. He wants man to lead a normal human life in the context of which he serves his Creator.

It is for these two reasons that Rabbi Soloveitchik views the centrality of petition in our prayer as an absolutely desirable feature: When man engages in prayer, he approaches God with all of his true worries, his troubles, his requests and his needs. Only in that way can he truly serve God with his entire person.


[1] Kant, indeed, rejects traditional prayer.

[2] Ed. Rabbi S. Fisher, Jerusalem 5750, pp. 372-373.

[3] See also what Rabbi Soloveitchik writes there, pp. 80ff.

(Translated by David Strauss)