The problem of infertility looms large in the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Yitzhak and Rivkah, like Avraham and Sarah before them, were childless. We readers are privy to a description of Yitzhak’s anguished prayers to intercede on his wife, Rivkah’s behalf and, in turn, God’s response: “Yitzhak pleaded (vayetar) with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren and the Lord granted (vayeatar) his plea, and his wife Rivkah conceived.” (Genesis 25:21)
The verb root “ayin tof reish”, used to describe Yitzhak’s prayer and God’s response, is one of ten words used for prayer in the Tanakh. Rashi understands it to express the intensity of Yitzhak’s prayers and their effectiveness in moving God to action: “He (Yitzhak) prayed much and intensely” … and, [in kind], God was appeased and influenced.” (adapted)
This verb root attracted the interest of the rabbinic sages who found colorful and creative ways to define its meaning. Bereishit Rabbah, an Eretz Yisrael midrash from the period of the Talmud (3-5th century), offers us three different interpretations: “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘He (Yitzhak) poured forth his prayers abundantly (b’osher)’; Resh Lakish said: ‘He overturned the decree (that Rivkah should be barren), as people express in the idiom: a pitch fork is called an atra because it is used to turn over a grain pile.’; Rabbi Levi offered a parable: This is like a prince who sought to take his father’s treasure by digging to reach the vault room while, in the meantime, his father dug from inside to reach his son in order to give it to him. This explains why the Arabs call the Hebrew word “to dig – khatira” (with a het), “atira (with an ayin).” (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 63:5)
All three of these word plays express different messages. Rabbi Yohanan, who relies on the fact that in Semitic languages “shin” and “tav” sounds interchange, serves as the source for Rashi. For him, “atar (pray)” can be thought to imply “osher (spelled: ayin shin reish) – wealth or abundance. Hence, the use of the word “atar” expressed the intensity and sincerity of Yitzhak’s prayer.
For Reish Lakish, the word “atar” is similar to the Aramaic word for a pitchfork “atra” – a tool used to turn over a pile of grain. This metaphor is used to assert the power of Yitzhak’s prayers to “overturn” God’s stern decree!
Rabbi Levi interpretation is, in my eyes, the cleverest and the most provocative of the three. We first need to know that the letter “ayin” was once guttural, so “het” and “ayin” had a similar sound. This allowed Rabbi Levi to make a playful association between “ayin taf reish – pray” and “het taf reish – dig”. Combined with the Torah’s use of the same word root for both Yitzhak’s prayer and God’s response, this provided the raw materials for a radical message. The prince is digging into his father’s vault to take his father’s treasure. His father is digging from inside the vault to abet his son’s crime. The father seemingly wants his son, the prince, to succeed in what looks like an illicit act, namely, overturning the divine decree of Rivka’s childlessness.
In other words, God sometimes desires to be coopted and, in some cases, even actively participates in the process of overturning norms. The Torah wants to inform us that the patriarchs and matriarchs took an active role in shaping the world for the better even when it meant changing the world order because that was God’s expectation of them. Avraham’s pleading for the residents of Sodom was no accident and Yitzhak’s prayers for Rivkah no aberration. They were meant to serve as a model for how we live our lives.