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Can You Feel My Pain?

Can You Feel My Pain?

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"Rabbi, I hope you can help my poor neighbor. He is six months behind his rent and is about to evicted along with his wife and three babies."

"This man must be a good friend of yours," the rabbi replied, "of course we will help."

"Friend!" exclaimed the petitioner, "He's not my friend, he's my tenant!"


Abimelech, king of the Philistines, abducted Sarah, our beautiful and righteous matriarch. Suddenly, all the wombs in Abimelech's household were sealed, and Abimelech was informed in a dream that this was punishment for his heinous – albeit unintentional – act. He hastened to apologize to Sarah and Abraham, who, in turn, prayed for his wives and maids, and they were all healed.

Interestingly, yet before Abimelech's household was cured, G‑d remembered Sarah and she conceived with Isaac.1 From this our sages deduced that those who pray on behalf of others, and are themselves of similar need, are answered first.2

When we pray for ourselves the heavenly response depends on our meritThe conventional understanding of this immediate response is that when we pray for ourselves the heavenly response depends on our merit; sometimes we merit a blessing and sometimes we don't. When we overlook our own needs and pray for others ahead of ourselves, G‑d responds in kind. He overlooks His demand that we merit His blessing and grants us blessing in spite of ourselves.3

One would suppose that this applies only to those who pray altruistically. But those who attempt to manipulate the process and pray for others only to bring blessing on themselves do not deserve to be blessed. Their prayer is not selfless; it is cynical and manipulative. Yet the Talmud teaches that we are similarly rewarded even when we turn the needs of others to our advantage and pray for them only because their needs match our own.4

Talmudic commentaries offer a somewhat mystical explanation for this phenomenon. Prayer accomplishes two things: It stimulates blessing from On High and it forms a channel though which the blessing is ushered into our world. When we pray on behalf of others we stimulate blessing unto their household; but since that blessing is channeled through our own souls it automatically solves the problems and cures the ills that it encounters in its path.5

Even when the prayer is offered with little regard for the other's plight, the blessing elicited by the prayer is still channeled through the one who offered the prayer and thus he or she benefits.

Unfettered Love

This explanation satisfies the mind, but perhaps not the heart. The very notion that self-centered manipulators might benefit from their manipulation seems unreasonable. As such I would like to offer a different approach.

Jews are inherently connected to each other; our hearts and souls are one. When one part of the body is healed, all other parts benefit. Not because the other parts show empathy and deserve to benefit; but because the entire body is a single organism. When a single organ fails the entire body is weakened, when a single organ is healed the entire body is strengthened.

The fact of our oneness is the true reason we pray for each otherIn truth every Jew should be affected by the ills of all Jews and every Jew should be positively impacted by the wellbeing of all Jews. The only reason this is not so is that our intrinsic oneness is not visible on the surface, and not always reflected in the way we live and interact with each other. However, when we show empathy and concern for each other, our oneness leaps into focus and rises to the surface. This is true even if our conscious intentions are not altruistic. The very fact that I take time away from my own needs to pray for you reflects the deeply embedded truth of our essential oneness. Though we don't know it, the fact of our oneness is the true reason we pray for each other. And once this oneness rises to the surface everyone within the circle of our bond benefits.6

Footnotes
1.

Talmud, Bava Kama 92a. Rashi explains that this is deduced from the Torah's placement of Isaac's birth immediately after the healing of Abimelech's wives. Some commentaries have asked why this proximity is of note when the Torah merely follows the chronological order in which these stories unfolded. See Gur Aryeh on Genesis 21:1 and P'nei Yehoshua on the Talmud, ibid., that the proximity merely supports the other proofs cited in the Talmud and in Rashi's commentary ad loc.
The Rebbe explains that the fact of Isaac's birth should have been mentioned, at least in passing, shortly after the Torah relates the promise of the angels to Abraham that Sarah would give birth. This would follow the precedent set in the Torah of informing us of the birth of Noah's children though it is repeated later in the context of the story of Noah. That this story is omitted earlier and brought at this point is sufficient to draw attention.

2.

Talmud, ibid.

3.

In fact, see Pirush Hageonim on the Talmud, ibid., that G‑d provides for our needs even before we pray for others, because He knows in advance that we will pray for others!

4.

See Ktav Sofer on Genesis 21:1 who explains that this is deduced from the fact that the Talmud infers this principle from both Abraham and Job. Job would already have known that Abraham was answered on account of praying for Abimelech and might in fact have intended to pray for his friends for his own benefit. Still Job's prayer brought about his salvation.
In his discussion on this subject The Rebbe points out that the intention of the prayer does not affect the blessing that one accrues from it. The primary point is that it benefits others, and that is sufficient cause for reward. Naturally, the Rebbe adds, the proper way to pray for others is altruistically.

5.

See Etz Yosef (in Ein Yaakov) on the Talmud, ibid.

6.

See Torat Menachem 5743, pg. 476-477 and 480-481 that this illustrates how great our love for a fellow Jew must be. Even though we may have the same need, and by Torah law we are required to pray for ourselves first, we still set our needs aside and pray for others first. The Rebbe did not see this as an option, but as an obligation; if our sages saw fit to point out the benefit of praying for others ahead of ourselves, we must view it as an obligation. After all, this behavior reflects and reveals our essential oneness.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
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