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After Avimelech, the King of the Plishtim (Philistines), took Sarah away from Avraham, Hashem came to Avimelech in a dream and told him not to touch her and to return her to Avraham. He then promised that Avraham would pray on his behalf, for Hashem made a miracle and closed up every hole in his, his wife, and maidservants’ bodies. The Torah testifies that: “Avraham prayed to G-D and G-D healed Avimelech, his wife, and his maids, and they were relieved” (Breishis 20:17).
The Medrish Rabba (Seder Vayera 52:13) relates on this pasuk, “ויתפלל אברהם אל האלוקים” : Rebbe Chama bar Rebbe Chanina said that from the beginning of this sefer [book] until now it never used this type of terminology; once Avraham Avinu prayed he untied that knot. “For Hashem had completely restrained every orifice” (pasuk 18), the mouth was restrained, the throat was restrained, the ears were restrained, up top was restrained, and down below was restrained, and everyone said it was because of the matter of Sarah the wife of Avraham. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
There are many explanations of what this medrish means. The Maharz”u says that the terminology (or format) of tefilla was not used until this point, when Hashem told Avimelech that Avraham would pray for him, and then the Torah relates that Avraham indeed prayed on his behalf. What the medrish means when it says “he untied this knot” would seem (according to the Maharz”u) to be that the word tefila comes from the pasuk “Naftuli Elokim Niftalti” (Breishis 30:8), the reason why Rochel named Bilhah’s second son Naftali. Rashi there explains that the word “Naftuli” comes from the phrase “ikesh upisalto,” which means perverse and crooked. Onkelos there says it stems from the word “bausi bi’ischonanti,” which means request while beseeching. But they are both the truth, for Hashem originally made the world straight but through man’s sin the straightness has become crooked and perverseness has entered the world. So tefilla, praying, exists to straighten the crooked and remove the perverse.
According to the Maharz”u, tefilla, prayer, came to straighten out the perverseness and crookedness of the world that came about as a result of sin, which made crooked the straightness that Hashem originally created the world with. This fits perfectly into what Avraham did; for the straight sense of the word, Hashem created man with holes in his body to help him function and Hashem blocked up those holes in Avimelech’s body because of the sin he committed of abducting Sarah. So Avraham prayed on his behalf to straighten out the corruption and crookedness Avimelech had created for himself. The Rada”l says that there was never a time until now that someone had prayed and Hashem had answered them, resulting in reversing a Heavenly decree, until Avraham came around and reopened these openings. This is why we say in our Shemone Esray “Magen Avraham,” that Hashem is Avraham’s Protector, for because of him the Gates of Kindness were opened to listen to prayer.
According to the Rada”l this was the first time Hashem answered the prayers of someone and reversed a heavenly decree, therefore we recognize the fact that Avraham opened the Gates of Kindness so that Hashem answers our prayers by saying in our Shemone Esray at least 3 times daily, “Baruch Ata Hashem Magen Avraham.”
However the Yidei Moshe has a different take on this. He says this is the first time someone ever prayed an incredibly intense prayer, ויתפלל comes from the word פלילים, wondrous, just as it says by Pinchas, ויפלל פנחס, Pinchas did wondrous feats. It says that they needed something really big to happen, and that was referring to the incredibly intense prayer needed to untie the knot for all their limbs were closed, the mouth, ears, etc. as the Medrish explains.
According to the Yidei Moshe, this was the first time in history that someone prayed a very intense prayer and Avraham did so because it was a very dire situation; all the orifices of the king of the Philistine’s body and of his wife and servants were closed up. It was seeing clear and present danger, directly in front of his face, which inspired him to pray such an intense prayer, as never prayed before in history!
But why hadn’t this happen before? Surely Avraham himself was in other circumstances where he had to pray on behalf of others, or even himself, like when he beseeched Hashem to save Sodom earlier on in the Torah portion. That was also a circumstance of clear and present danger; he knew that fire and brimstone would hail down from Heaven and wipe out whole cities. Both situations were dealing with bad people, and Avraham was using his feelings of mercy and grace to pray on their behalf. But, still, by Avimelech, king of the Philistines, he prayed with more intensity? Why is this so? Indeed the Yidei Moshe did not say because he was trying to get Sarah back after she was captured, rather it is because he saw the dire situation they were in. That made a difference! The fact that Avraham saw with his own eyes the suffering Avimelech was going through prompted him to pray a very intense prayer, even more so than knowing that moments later whole cities would be violently wiped out.
A little more inspiration, actually seeing a reality check in front of one’s eyes, can transform one’s prayers from intense to really intense and make a world of a difference to the point that it was something never done before until then.