Unlikely Origins of Prayer
Parashat Lekh Lekha
Where does prayer come from? Do you have to feel close to God to pray? Even as God talks to multiple prominent figures in the first chapters of the Torah, none of them utter words we would recognize as prayer.1 Instead, prayer comes from less obvious sources.
In this week’s parashah we encounter Avram “calling upon God’s name,” presumably some kind of formal worship as he builds an altar (Genesis 12:8). The picture we get is that you do have to feel close to God to pray—Avram only “calls upon God’s name” after God has already called to him. But this generic phrase doesn’t actually give us any sense of meaningful words of prayer, and calls our attention to the fact that we don’t see Adam, Noah, or Avram articulating words of prayer to God. There are multiple moments where we might have expected spontaneous prayer to emerge. Adam being kicked out of the garden, perhaps praying to return. Noah on the ark, praying for the waters to end. Avram when famine first strikes, praying for food.2 In the midrash collection Bereishit Rabbah, the first moment of prayer is none of these. The first prayer comes when Sarai is abducted by Pharaoh, upon Avram and Sarai’s arrival in Egypt (12:17).
Earlier traditions, prior to Rabbinic sources, also saw this distressing moment as an occasion for prayer. One of the writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls relates that Avram “prayed and besought and implored” when Sarai was taken away.3 He beseeches God, the “Lord and Ruler over everything,” levels an accusation at Pharaoh, and asks God to save Sarai, and to “manifest [God’s] great power against him.”4 This prayer has familiar tropes to our own prayer book—recognizing God as Ruler and beseeching God with a specific request.
Yet, Rabbinic teachings adopt an entirely different approach to the origins of prayer in this tense narrative. Stuck in the depths of Pharaoh's palace—and in the depths of a text that gives her no voice—it is Sarai who gives birth to prayer in this moment. She is the first to pronounce the formula “Master of the Worlds” to introduce a personal prayer in response to her circumstances.5 What does she have to say? She does not pray to go home. She does not level an accusation at Pharaoh. She does not pray for God’s name to be made known to the world. She hurls a critique of the unfairness of her situation:
בראשית רבה (תיאדור-אלבק) מ:ב
וכל אותו הלילה היתה שרה שטוחה על פניה ואומרת רבון כל העולמים אברהם יצא באבטחה ואני יצאתי באמנה אברהם חוץ לסירה ואני נתונה בסירה אתמהא.
Bereishit Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck) 40:2
…And that whole night, Sarah prostrated herself on her face saying: “Master of all the Worlds! Avraham went out with a guarantee, and I went out on blind faith. Avraham is outside the prison, but I am in the prison?!”
Sarai here points out that she has received no assurances from God about her own future— and yet she must face adversity over and above Avram. God has guaranteed Avram descendents, wealth, and blessing, promises that would offer comfort and perspective if he was taken captive. How is she supposed to get through the difficulty of the moment when God has never spoken to her or promised her anything? We know Sarai becomes Sarah our foremother, but for all Sarai knows, her part in the story may end here, helping to enrich Avram from Pharaoh’s wealth and remaining in Pharaoh’s palace forever.
In the text of the Torah where Sarai has no voice—and on the backdrop of pre-Rabbinic texts that give Avram a voice but not Sarai—it is remarkable to see our Sages draw out Sarai’s voice in this narrative. In the midst of a situation where she is objectified for her beauty, and deprived of any agency, Sarai’s voice emerges loud and strong, uttering the first words of prayer. The textual catalyst for the midrash is the phrase “על דבר שרי / al devar Sarai” (Genesis 12:17). At face value, this means “about the matter of Sarai,” where she is the object of discussion, but the midrash takes it instead as “due to the word of Sarai,” where she becomes a subject who speaks, finding her voice in this context of total degradation.
This is where prayer comes from. Not from a figure who is in direct relationship and regular conversation with God, but from someone who has no reason to believe God will do anything for her. In Avivah Zornberg’s words, hers is a faith of “grim realism.”6 God has never spoken to her and never indicated an interest in her own future. Nonetheless she decides to articulate the fragility of her position, and the untenable nature of her reality, directly to God.
Who are we in this story? Are we Avram, going through the travails of life with divine assurance of blessing? Or are we Sarai, essentially going on nothing as we face the intense challenges life throws our way? On the one hand, we are descendants of Avraham, born into the “guarantee” of covenant. On the other hand, we may feel more affinity to Sarai at times, going on faith alone without any direct assurances from God, seeing our world unravel and unsure of our place in the larger arc of the Jewish people and of history. Sarai is the matriarch who teaches us to pray from exactly that place.
Sarai beckons us into prayer from the reality of where we are, even if that is rooted in uncertainty and cynicism. With Sarai as a model, we might overcome some of the common barriers of entry into prayer. How can I pray if I don’t feel like I’m in any kind of relationship with God? What’s the point of prayer if I don’t believe God will answer me? Sarai teaches us that prayer can come from not having a clear sense of a relationship with God. Prayer runs on the fumes of an uncertain faith, not the resonant lingering of divine promises in our ears. What is the point of prayer if it isn’t cementing a steadfast relationship with God or getting what we pray for? Perhaps the primary purpose of prayer is actually to draw out the power of our own voices, as we articulate that our reality is not as it should be, and day-in, day-out adamantly refuse to give up on the more perfect vision our silent God inspires.
2 The lack of any spontaneous prayer in these instances is likely due to the fact that the style of the Torah does not tend to focus on the interior of any character. This is often the work of midrash. Even so, there are some examples of more extensive prayer later in the Torah (one will be the topic for my essay on Parashat Hayyei Sarah), and it is striking that we don’t have any kind of articulated prayer in these earlier chapters.
3 The Genesis Apocryphon, one of the first scrolls to be found, but only properly identified much later. Although extremely fragmented, it contains a retelling of the early parts of Genesis and the narratives of the patriarchs.
4 Genesis Apocryphon, column 20, translation by John C. Reeves, retrieved here (October, 2021): https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/rels-2104-hebrew-scripturesold-testament/translation-of-1q-genesis-apocryphon/.
5 רבון (כל) העולמים, a common refrain in Rabbinic prayer. Bereishit Rabbah has Adam and Avram invoking this formula to recite a verse from Tanakh, rather cryptically. These are not, however, prayers in any real sense.