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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Parashat Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3

The delight of being “heard and understoof” is

something essential to humanity.

You know how you sometimes realize just a moment too late that a mistake has been made?
We experienced that in my family this past week. We finally broke down and bought a
"smartphone," one of those contraptions that allow you to access the web 24/7. Such devices
should come with a warning attached, similar to the warning about the forbidden fruit in the
Garden of Eden. For the individual who mainly communicates by email, the smartphone can
turn a tool of convenience into a source of addiction.

It is most astonishing how the internet, a form of communication less than 30 years old, is so
much a part of our lives. The same observation was probably made about the telephone at one
time. On that fateful March day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell could not even begin to
imagine how his successful experiment would transform the way we live. He did make a note
in his journal that in hindsight reveals much, not about the invention itself, but about the
inventors. In a journal entry dated March 10, 1876 Bell wrote: "I then shouted into M [the
mouthpiece] the following sentence: 'Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you.' To my
delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said."

The delight of being "heard and understood" is something essential to humanity. We all want
to be heard, we all want to be understood. We send a message into the void, eagerly
anticipating a reply. Over time, our eagerness has turned into impatience, as our modes of
communication have become increasingly sophisticated. Responses need to be virtually

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Being "heard and understood" is as old as the lessons in the Torah. Our patriarchs
communicated with those around them but also had a special relationship with God. Rabbinic
tradition (Berachot 26b) takes this relationship and develops it into a revolutionary form of
communication with the Divine: the daily prayer services that replaced the sacrifices. The
prooftext for Jacob's having instituted the Ma'ariv (evening) service is found at the very
beginning of this week's parasha: He came upon (va-yifga) a certain place and stopped there
for the night, for the sun had set. (Genesis 28:11) The Talmud connects va-yifga to a variation
of the same root in Jeremiah 7:16, where the word tifga, to intercede, is related to prayer.

If we learn about the establishment of the prayer service from the patriarchs, we can also learn
much about the essence of prayer from the matriarchs, and specifically from Leah and Rachel.
These two sisters, both married to Jacob, appear to be in competition to see who can provide
Jacob with the most offspring. Rachel even admits to this rivalry when she names one of the
sons of her handmaiden, Bilhah: "A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have
prevailed." So she named him Naphtali. (Genesis 30:8)

Their prayers and the efficacy of those prayers come through in their desire to bear children.
With Leah we are told that God heeded (va-yishma) Leah, and she conceived and bore him a
fifth son. (Genesis 30:17) Similarly with Rachel we find out that…God remembered Rachel;
God heeded (va-yishma) her and opened her womb. (Genesis 30:22)

Apparently God does a lot of listening with the matriarchs, especially as far as babies are
concerned. First we have Sarah's laughter as a reaction to the news that she will bear a son.
She denies laughing to herself, but God responds "You did laugh." (Genesis 18:14) Then
Rebecca encounters difficulty in her pregnancy and turns to God: But the children struggled in
her womb, and she said, "If so, why do I exist?" She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord

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answered her… (Genesis 25:22-3) Finally, we have the two sisters, whose private petitions we
do not know, but we have the end result. In both cases God heard them, though we must bear
in mind that the response was not instantaneous, neither for Leah nor certainly for Rachel.

There are other examples in the Torah of God heeding (va-yishma) human beings. God listens
to Moses' plea not to destroy the people after the incident of the Golden Calf. (Deuteronomy
9:19 and 10:10) Later on, in the book of Judges (13:9), God listens to Manoah and provides
him with a son, Samson.

How fortunate these individuals are to know that their prayers are heard and answered! In the
Bible it is taken for granted that people have conversations with God. In rabbinic times our
sages, struggling with the issue of having our prayers heard and answered, concluded that
"One's prayer is heard if God is approached with heart in hand." (Ta'anit 8a) Certainly, in the
instances quoted above, the fervency on the part of the person praying is evident. Yet we can
all point to instances of deeply felt prayers that have had heartbreaking results. Too often, our
attempts at dialogue with the Divine seem to end up as soliloquies.

Only inside can we feel if there is any reply. No activity in the world can conclusively
demonstrate dialogue. Perhaps in the subjective chambers of the individual soul one may
conclude that there was communication, but it is highly personal and ever uncertain. Everyone
who prays struggles with the deep fear that this time, the only answer will be absence, silence.
Rabbi David Wolpe, The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God
Is there a problem with us, with our mode of communication, or our expectations?

It is incorrect to describe prayer by analogy with human conversation; we do not communicate

with God. We only make ourselves communicable to Him. …

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Prayer is an answer to God: "Here am I. And this is the record of my days. Look in to my
heart, into my hopes and my regrets." …
The purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by
Him; not to know Him but to be known to Him. To pray is to behold life not only as a result of
His power, but as a concern of His will, or to strive to make our life a divine concern.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel , Man's Quest for God, as quoted in
Modern Thinkers Reflect on Jewish Prayer ,

To paraphrase the old telephone commercial: "Reach out and touch some One." We may not
always get the response we seek; we may not even sense the acknowledgment. Then why
bother to connect? Because this very act of yearning imbues our life with holy purpose.

Will you hear my voice, my distant one,

will you hear my voice, wherever you are —
a voice calling strong, a voice crying silently
and above time, commanding blessing?

…I shall wait for you until my life dims,

As Rachel awaited her lover.

Rachel, Sorrow Song (trans. Wendy Zierler),

in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, p. 182

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Michal Shekel

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