Sharing Torah Insights

Effective Prayer

Posted on י״ח במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (November 5, 2009) | in Vayeira | by

One theme that seems to crop up in basically every area of this week’s parsha is the importance of prayer. I would like to analyze each of these different instances of prayer to see what we can learn from them about our own prayers.

Prayer For The Sick

Parshat Vaeira starts with HaShem visiting Avraham while he is sitting outside his tent recovering from his Brit Milah. Rashi brings from the Gemarrah that this is where we learn out the importance of Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick. 1According to the Chachat Adam (151:3) the main point of Bikur Cholim is davening for the sick person while visiting him. In fact, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (193:3) rules that one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim if he does not daven to HaShem while visiting the sick. We learn that the Shechina comes to rest at the head of all sick people; thus, praying while visiting a sick person is considered praying directly in front of HaShem.

Avraham and Sodom

As the Parsha progresses, Avraham is told that Sodom and Amorrah will be destroyed. Unlike Noach, who did not protest when told that the world would be destroyed, Avraham takes advantage of the fact that Hashem is still visiting him (וְאַבְרָהָם–עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. Bereishit 18:22) and steps forward to protest the destruction of these cities. Avraham tells Hashem that it is unjust to destroy the righteous people of a city along with the unrighteous and begs HaShem to save the city if He can find only 50 righteous inhabitants. Avraham then continues to press Hashem, getting Him to agree to save the whole land if there are 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally just 10 righteous people among the entire populace.

There are two interesting themes in Avraham’s pleas to Hashem. First, throughout his pleading with Hashem, Avraham continually speaks to Hashem’s Middat HaDin, Attribute of Justice.

חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ–הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט.

That be far from You to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from You; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’

Avraham speaks out about the apparent lack of justice in HaShem’s actions if He would destroy the land without taking the existence of righteous people into account. Avraham’s pleas were ultimately effective and Hashem agreed that if there were just 10 righteous people the cities wouldn’t be destroyed. However, not even 10 existed and the decree to destroy Sodom and Amorrah remained in effect.

Second, we see a repeating theme of Avraham expressing his humility and apprehension in having the gall to question Hashem. Avraham says:

Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes.

הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אֲדֹנָי, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר.

And he said: ‘Oh, let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה

‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD.

הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אֲדֹנָי

‘Oh, let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once.

אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ-הַפַּעַם

The Prayer of Lot

The Parsha then moves on to Lot and his escape from Sodom. As Lot and his daughters are fleeing Sodom, Lot calls out the the angels, using the Middat HaRachamim, the Attribute of Mercy. Lot says that he cannot climb up the mountain and can he please stay in the city of Tzoar. His request is granted and the city of Tzoar is saved.

הִנֵּה-נָא מָצָא עַבְדְּךָ חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ, וַתַּגְדֵּל חַסְדְּךָ אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי, לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת-נַפְשִׁי; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא אוּכַל לְהִמָּלֵט הָהָרָה–פֶּן-תִּדְבָּקַנִי הָרָעָה, וָמַתִּי. הִנֵּה-נָא הָעִיר הַזֹּאת קְרֹבָה, לָנוּס שָׁמָּה–וְהִוא מִצְעָר; אִמָּלְטָה נָּא שָׁמָּה, הֲלֹא מִצְעָר הִוא–וּתְחִי נַפְשִׁי.וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו–הִנֵּה נָשָׂאתִי פָנֶיךָ, גַּם לַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:  לְבִלְתִּי הָפְכִּי אֶת-הָעִיר, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ.

Behold now, your servant has found grace in your sight, and You have magnified your mercy, which You have shown me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest the evil overtake me, and I die. Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one; oh, let me escape thither–is it not a little one?–and my soul shall live.’ And He said unto him: ‘See, I have accepted you concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken.

Avraham and Avimelech

Once Sodom is destroyed, Avraham immediately leaves and goes to Gerrar. While there, he and Sarah relive their previous experience in Egypt where Sarah was taken away from Avraham by the king Avimelech. This time, however, the story plays out slightly differently, and instead of the great afflictions the were given to the Egyptians, Hashem had prevented all the women in Avimelech’s house from giving birth. It says there:

וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אַבְרָהָם, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיִּרְפָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְאַמְהֹתָיו–וַיֵּלֵדוּ.

And Abraham prayed unto God; and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children.

Chazal learn from this story the concept of Hamitpalel b’ad chaveiro, vhu tzarich oto davar, hu ne’eneh tchilah – that if someone prays for someone else, and the one who prays is in need of the same thing, the one praying is answered first by HaShem. Chazal say that this prayer by Avraham for the household of Avimelech was part of the catalyst that enabled Sarah to have a child as well.

Yishmael Cries Out

The parsha continues with the story of Sarah telling Avraham to kick out Yishmael and Hagar because of Yishmael’s bad influence on Yitzchak. They are sent away, and end up in the desert without water. Hagar leaves Yishmael to die and an amazing thing happens. Yishmael, in his weak and pitied state cries out to Hashem. The pasuk states:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם.

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her: ‘What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.

Why does the Pasuk say “בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם, where he is”? Chazal learn from this that even though Yishmael was such an evil person to deserve being sent away, he still was able to do Teshuvah by repenting in his weakened and starved state.  When he finally calls out to HaShem in prayer, HaShem listens to his request on the heightened spiritual level he had reached in his desperation and saves him from death.  Thus we see that HaShem judges people on their current spiritual levels, not on their past or future actions.

The Sacrifice of Yitzchak

The Parsha concludes with the most intense example of prayer yet. Hashem tests Avraham by telling him to bring Yitzchak his son as a sacrifice. The Gemarrah (I think in Yuma) notes that when someone brought one of the sin offerings, he was supposed to feel as if he was sacrificing himself on the Mizbeach (altar) rather than the animal. (It is also well known that the prayers that we have today, Shacharit, Mussaf, Mincha and Maariv, are all connected to the sacrifices that they used to bring in the Beit HaMikdash.)

The self-sacrifice evidenced by Avraham and Yitzchak in this story is part of why the Torah reading of Akeidat Yitzchak is read on Rosh Hashana. We use this passage to show Hashem that we are prepared to devote ourselves to Him fully in the upcoming year.


In conclusion, there are many different elements of prayer that are highlighted in this Parsha. We learn that there are times when prayer is more readily accepted than others. We see how there are times that it is best to pray to Hashem’s attribute of Justice and other times when asking for mercy is the better route. We see that even someone as great as Avraham has to be ashamed to be making requests of Hashem, and even those as lowly as Yishmael and Lot can have their prayers answered. We also see the power of praying for other people. Finally we see that prayer can be expressed not just through words, but through a display of utter devotion to Hashem through our actions.

If you made it this far, leave a comment about what strategies you have to have more Kavannah during Tefillah.

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4 Responses to “Effective Prayer”

  1. “Chazal learn from this that even though Yishmael was such an evil person to deserve being sent away, he still was able to do Teshuvah by repenting in his weakened and starved state.” Where do chazal say this peshat in ba’asher hu shum?

    The ultimate strategy for kavana is the ramban’s advice: Think about the meaning of each phrase before you say it. Davening with the kollel helps too.


    Liron Kopinsky Reply:

    While Rashi states that Baasher Hu Sham means that Yishmael was punished as he was then and not for the sins in the future, the Siftei Chachamim asks why not just say he was punished for the sins he had already done (since R’ Akiva et. al. say that “Metzachek” means that he was sinning). He gives 2 answers: 1. That Rashi is only bringing the opinion of R’ Shimon who says that Metzachek wasn’t bad (but the Siftei Chachamim doesn’t like this). 2. That since Yishmael wasn’t yet 20, he couldn’t be prosecuted for the bad that he had done previously. Further, since Yishmael did Teshuva at the end of his life for his youthful sins, Baasher Hu Sham had to refer to his future (generation’s) transgresses against Bnei Yisrael and not Yishamel’s personal sins.


  2. Todd Wilkof says:

    Reading Liron’s davar, one wonders why the theme of prayer is so central to Vayeira. The Rebbe’s commentary on the parsha provides a clue. The Rebbe says that at first glance Vayeira seems a direct continuation of Lech Lecha. There, he writes, we read of Avraham’s journeys, disputes, wars and family life. And here, in Vayeira, the story continues as we read further installments in the life of Avraham.

    So what makes Vayeira distinct from the previous chapters describing Avraham’s life? The basic distinction, says the Rebbe, is that Vayeira describes Avraham’s life after being circumcised. Prior to brit milah, we observe Avraham’s search for the One G-d. It is only following his circumcision that Hashem appears to him- Vayeira- and thereafter, throughout this Parsha, a new era in the life of Avraham begins. Having made his physical body a receptacle for Divinity, through the covenant of circumcision in Lech Lecha, G-d’s presence in Vyeira is at once made apparent and imminently accessible. In response Avraham offers prayer.

    In this we are to learn that circumcision is a particular method of drawing closer to G-d, and prayer is the means to further and deepen that connection. Both are more than simply mitzvoth- they both reflect and extend the message of a covenant, the ongoing bond between man and G-d. As the Parsha goes on to relate various ways in which prayer operates in the world- as so well described by Liron, we learn that prayer, like brit milah are the ongoing actions that we can take to make Hashem’s appearance in our lives more apparent. In this we way we follow in the footsteps of our forefather Avraham


    Liron Kopinsky Reply:

    The Abarbanel says something similar, commenting that Avraham was on a much higher level when he went to Avimelech in Gerrar than he was when he Pharoah in Egypt and relates this higher level to part of the reason why those stories played out so differently.


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