by R' Yair Spolter
The Power of Prayer
The great gaon and tzaddik Rabbi Akiva Eiger
once received a letter requesting that he pray on behalf of a
man who was ill. The letter included the man's name as well
as his mother's name, and a short note asking that the
gaon daven for him. Rabbi Akiva Eiger obliged. He
prayed that the sick man should have a full recovery.
However, despite Rabbi Akiva Eiger's tefilloh, the
illness did not subside.
Shortly afterwards, the man who had written to Rabbi Akiva
Eiger received a letter in reply. It read: "Concerning the
patient that you asked me to daven for, I see that my
prayer was not answered. Perhaps the name you gave me was
Rabbi Akiva Eiger was so confident in the power of prayer
that he did not entertain the possibility that his
tefilloh could have been turned down. The only
possible explanation was that there must have been a mistake
in the name!
Tefilloh has always been one of Klal Yisroel's most
treasured commodities. The strength of the Jewish Nation lies
in our mouths, in our close connection to Hashem through
prayer. In Parshas Toldos we learn how the power of
prayer made the very inception of the Jewish people
The parsha begins by relating that Yitzchok Ovinu and
his wife Rivka were unable to have children. They implored
Hashem to act with Divine mercy and grant them a child.
Hashem heard their prayers and Rivka conceived.
When the Torah describes Yitzchok Ovinu's prayer, it uses the
word "vaye'etar." Rashi explains that this word comes
from the root ayin-tov-reish, which means abundance.
Thus, "Vaye'etar Yitzchok leHashem" means "and
Yitzchok prayed abundantly to Hashem." This seems to imply
that Yitzchok was davening for a long period of time,
as did his father Avrohom before meriting the birth of
Yitzchok. Perhaps months, even years, passed until his
prayers were answered.
When Moshe Rabbenu prayed for 40 days on Har Sinai, the Torah
does not use the word "vaye'etar." Nor do we find this
term used in reference to the 515 prayers that Moshe Rabbenu
prayed when imploring the Ribono Shel Olom to allow
him to enter Eretz Yisroel.
It seems that there was a unique aspect of persistence in
Yitzchok's prayer. He might have prayed many times over a
long span of time before being blessed with a child. Rashi
informs us, however, that this was not the case. He makes the
following calculation: Yitzchok was 40 years old when he
married Rivka (v.20). It was another ten years until Rivka
reached the age of childbearing. Subsequently, Yitzchok
waited 10 more years to ascertain that Rivka was actually
physically incapable of conceiving. It was only then, at the
age of 60, that Yitzchok began to pray to Hashem for a child
(Rashi v.26). When Yaakov and Eisov were born, the Torah
tells us that Yitzchok Ovinu was 60 years old. This means
that his prayers were answered almost immediately. If so, why
does the Torah tell us that Yitzchok prayed exceedingly? In
what way was his tefilloh considered abundant?
Perhaps the answer to this mystery lies in a midrash
on the very same posuk. The Midrash tells us that
the word "vaye'etar" can also be understood to mean
"and he dug." With his prayer, Yitzchok Ovinu was hewing out
a pipeline to the Heavens.
Chazal explain this with a moshol. The son of a great
king once wanted to enter the king's treasury, to take from
his riches. Since the door to the treasury was locked and
guarded, he began digging a tunnel that would get him in
through the floor. As he dug deep into the ground, suddenly
the earth before him gave way, as if he had discovered a
secret passageway. As the debris cleared from the air, he
looked up and saw his father the king, holding a shovel in
Realizing his son's plan, the king had dug his own tunnel
through the floor of the treasury. He met his son along the
way, bringing him the riches that he sought.
"Vaye'etar Yitzchok leHashem" -- Yitzchok dug with his
prayers, "Vayei'oseir lo Hashem" -- and Hashem dug
from His end, allowing Yitzchok's prayers to reach the
Heavens and be answered.
This beautiful moshol gives us an insight into
Hashem's desires to hear our tefillos, and His
eagerness to answer them. But perhaps we can learn from it
another point as well.
The gemora (Brochos 32a) tells us that if a person
davens for something and is not answered, he should
daven again. Why is this so? If the prayer didn't do
anything the first time, why should the second time be
different? Is prayer like a slot machine -- if you don't win
the first time try your luck again? How does this work?
This gemora is teaching us a very important concept,
which is one of the foundations of understanding tefilloh.
Every prayer does something. Every prayer has an effect,
whether we see it or not. Every prayer is listened to by
Hashem, Who gives us His direct attention.
Sometimes the gates of Heaven are open and the prayer reaches
its destination right away, bringing immediate blessing and
good fortune. Other times, the first prayer doesn't do the
whole job. Like digging a tunnel, it may take days, weeks, or
even years of persistence.
But, the gemora is telling us, don't give up. Pray
again. Each and every prayer -- each and every word of each
and every prayer -- has a definite effect.
Perhaps this concept can help us understand why Chazal
described Yitzchok's tefilloh as tunnel-digging. When
someone sets out to dig a tunnel, he doesn't expect to
immediately reach the other end. Nevertheless, he doesn't
disregard the first strokes as being unimportant or useless.
He realizes that everything he does is bringing him closer to
When someone stops davening after not getting
immediate results it is because he doesn't have an
appreciation for the power of prayer. Prayer, for him, is a
last resort. He's willing to "give it a try." "What have I
got to lose?" But if he doesn't get what he asked for, he
feels that he's wasted his time and he gives up.
The persistent davener, on the other hand, exhibits
his strong trust and reliance on the power of prayer. He
doesn't give up after one time or two, because he knows that
his prayers are having an effect. Knowing that every word is
being listened to, he pulls out his shovel, ready to go to
The persistent davener differs from the one-time
davener not only in the number of times that he
davens, but in how he davens. From the very
onset his tefilloh is different, injected with the
unyielding spirit with which he beseeches Hashem. This
style of prayer is called "'itur," which means
to pray persistently, not only in a quantitative sense but
also in a qualitative sense. It means to pray with the
fervent belief that tefilloh really works. And it
When Yitzchok Ovinu began davening for a child, he
faced a situation that was seemingly hopeless. The laws of
nature had dictated that he and his wife would remain
childless. Their only chance was supernatural intervention.
Not only was Rivka's pregnancy a physical impossibility, but
in the spiritual sense, as well, they needed a miracle.
As Chazal explained in their moshol, the king's
treasury was locked and guarded. This refers to the fact that
Hashem's attribute of Justice (middas hadin) made it
impossible for the wicked Eisov to be conceived. Despite the
overwhelming odds against him, Yitzchok picked up his shovel
and began to pray. If the front door to the treasury was
locked, he would find another way in. He was armed with the
power of prayer. He davened with a feeling of complete
trust and reliance that Hashem hears and answers prayer. He
was determined, and he would have davened as many
times as it would take. But as soon as he began, Hashem
responded -- "Vayei'oseir lo Hashem." The Almighty
King, shovel in hand, came to meet His son, bringing him the
riches that he desired.
Why did the Torah use the term "'itur," if Yitzchok
Ovinu did not actually pray for a long period of time?
Because the power of tefilloh with bitochon
lies not only in the quantity but also in the quality of such
a prayer. Yitzchok's prayer was certainly a cry of
"'itur." And he would have continued to pray for as
long as it would take. He simply didn't have a chance to
repeat his request. As soon as he began to dig, he was met by
the King, who was eager to hear and to answer his
The importance of prayer in our lives cannot be
overestimated. With all of life's challenges,
responsibilities, and surprises, the time we spend connecting
to the Ribono Shel Olom is nothing short of our
lifeline. But for some, davening can become monotonous
and uninspiring. It is hard to appreciate the reality of
prayer, because we cannot sense its potency.
Here the Torah is telling us loud and clear -- tefilloh
really works! Not sometimes, but always. Not a little,
but a lot.
If we pause for a moment before davening and think
about this, we can become inspired to daven with
greater concentration and confidence. If we think about the
shovel, if we feel Hashem listening to our words, then the
minutes we spend in prayer will surely become the most
inspiring part of our day. If we can have the confidence in
the power of tefilloh that Rabbi Akiva Eiger had, then
we can be as confident as he was that our tefillos
will be answered.
Questions for Discussion
* What other advantages might there be to davening
even when the tefillos go unanswered?
* Is there any situation in which one should not
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