She exuded a rare inner beauty that struck me right away. As dusk descended on Jerusalem, we both moved closer to the Western Wall, eager to touch the sacred, sun-kissed stones.
There, as at every place of prayer, our differences fell away. The crowd surged forward and I sensed a single heartbeat: the unified sound of a people who had come to talk to their Creator.
Pressing her lips to the ancient stones, she broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. Hers was a cry I had never heard before: a deep, raw grief that unveiled a tender vulnerability. She clung desperately to the wall, as if hoping it would comfort her.
For a moment, I could not remember why I had come. I placed my palms on the stones; they were burning. From the summer sun, or from her hot tears?
That evening, I prayed for the brokenhearted girl who stood next to me. I prayed that whatever pain she was experiencing would not last a moment longer. I asked G‑d to send her a sign, a blessing, an angel to guide her.
As a child, you believe your prayers go straight to heaven. Life is simple, and in your own little world, things are the way they ought to be. Candy tastes good; holidays are fun; and when you pray to G‑d, He responds accordingly.
I remember when I lost this, when the innocence of my faith in G‑d was crushed.
“If the one I was praying for is gone,” I wanted to know, “where did my prayers go?”
Prayer elevates the soul, the adults told me. Though we may not see the body change, they said, the soul gains through every prayer.
Indeed, every soul agrees to live its predestined life in spite of the hurdles it knows it must breach, because it yearns to complete its mission. And to that end, what our prayers accomplish for a departing soul is beyond our comprehension. That our perception is limited to the physical world renders the effect of these prayers no less potent than those which materialize before our very eyes.
But to my young mind, talk of souls and spirits was not satisfactory. I urged my mother for something more.
And she did. She related the story of a certain chassid who journeyed to his rebbe seeking relief from a life of sorrow.
“Pray,” his rebbe told him, “and things will get better.”
“But I’ve been praying for years!” cried the chassid in anguish. “Where have all my prayers gone?!”
His rebbe answered with a stunning statement that carried so much pain, yet so much love.
“Someone else on this earth also suffers as you do, but unfortunately he does not know how to pray. When you pray for yourself, you become a lifeline for him.”
Do not fear that your prayers go unanswered. On the contrary: they are going further than you could ever imagine. Your heartfelt plea is so sincere, so cherished by G‑d, that He is collecting your precious tears and distributing your prayers among all those souls experiencing similar hardships. G‑d is not making you wait; He is answering your prayer at a magnitude inconceivable to you.
The Torah tells us of the momentous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. In celebrating this miracle, our matriarch Sarah exclaims, “G‑d has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me.” The Midrashic interpretation of the words “will rejoice over me” offers an intriguing revelation: “Many barren women were remembered with her; many sick people were healed on that very day; many prayers were answered with hers, and there was much joy in the world.” (Genesis Rabbah 53:8)
Sarah’s prayers had spanned the hopes and dreams of people in faraway lands, so that when she was finally answered, it was on a cosmic level. Herein lies the mystical power of prayer.
The Talmud insists that G‑d did a favor for the Jewish people by dispersing them throughout the world (Pesachim 87b). Indeed, our geographical exiles serve to secure our physical survival, for should Jewish life be threatened in one country (G‑d forbid), Jewish communities elsewhere on the globe can come to their rescue.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn takes this idea one step deeper: Yes, there is a blessing in being apart, he explains. For if Torah observance is compromised in one particular place due to religious persecution, its heartfelt performance elsewhere endures to sustain the Jewish people spiritually, infusing those struggling far away with the strength to endure.
But there is yet another sense of “apart,” and this too carries a blessing.
Though intrinsically we are all one, G‑d created experiential distance between His creations. We are set apart by the nature of our challenges, exiled in our individual battles.
Yet, when G‑d placed each soul in its own orb of experiences, He also granted us a window into each other’s lives. He created the finest yin-yang balance, where I deeply sense the despair of your struggle, but nonetheless still passionately believe in your redemption. And the blessing in being apart is realized when, through the hope that remains in my heart, your pain becomes my prayer.
Indeed, it is for a greater good that G‑d did not place us in the same existential exiles, for in His scattering our souls He created the necessary space between us to always lift each other’s spirits and yearn for a better tomorrow.
I believe that though we are finite beings—bound by time and caught in space—yet when G‑d gives us a glimpse of someone else’s unrest, He also grants us the ability to transcend our human limitations. Though our apartness is so vast, when we choose to pray for another soul, we build a spiritual connection with that soul. It is like the path of time travel through a tesseract: we enter the fourth dimension, bypassing all the confines separating us and uniting our souls in a bond otherwise unachievable.
Suddenly I know you, and your insurmountable struggle has almost become my own. I want to change the world for you; I want to step where you cannot because your pain has crushed you.
On that late summer afternoon at the Western Wall, G‑d highlighted the blessed gulf between the brokenhearted girl and I, fueling my prayer, and bringing us closer to one another than we ever could have been.
Granted, I don’t know where my prayers went that day, or how they impacted her life. But, as the Rebbe once wrote to Israeli general and politician Rehavam Ze’evi, “An honest, heartfelt blessing from one to another is potent, and will materialize—sometimes in full, and sometimes in part; sometimes immediately, and sometimes after a while . . .”
Many people walk through our lives, to be sure; none do so without reason. If G‑d has shown you the struggle of a stranger, it is so that one more prayer is sung in this world. Sing, and let the heavens resound with a fervent song of redemption for all of humanity.