Praying for Others
Dear Mesora, I once heard (unsure of the original source) that if one prays for another person suffering the same ailment or having the same desire (example: having children) as oneself, then the person will be granted by G-d the very thing they asked for the other person. Have you ever heard of such a notion (its source)? If not, what do you think about this? I have some problems with it, as it doesn’t make sense to me that G-d should decide to give you something you want, if you pray for another with the same request. I would appreciate your insight into this, as I was asked to pray for others (and am very tempted to do it myself) but do not want to err philosophically. Thank you.
Mesora: You are quoting a Rashi in Genesis, 21:1, and the Talmud Baba Kama 92a. They state that if one prays for another person (to have children) while possessing that very same, he/she is answered (by G-d) first.
It occurred to me after writing my response below, this area can serve as a good example of teaching the method for discovering answers to one’s questions.
In this example, one who prays for another is entitled to an answer more readily than if he prays for himself. That is the unique fact displayed by this statement of the Rabbis. Whenever defining an area, one must determine what is unique about the specific area at hand. Therefore, the way to approach this problem is to first, hone in on the specific trait displayed by the one praying. One may then ask the following to direct himself towards where the answer lies: “What is it in one’s praying for others which entitles him to be answered?” Asking this question more precisely, one may ask, “What ‘perfection’ exists in a person when he is less personal in prayer?” I say ‘perfection’ as G-d responds more readily to one who is more perfected, and I say ‘less personal’ since he prays for another person’s needs before his own. The answer now stares us in the face: When one is less personal, in other words, “objective” about the needs of people, even before his own needs, he displays that which G-d desires, i.e., an objective embrace of the ideas of the Torah per se, as opposed to reacting to his own personal needs. G-d answers him or her because he is attached to the truth, and not attached to what is important only for himself.
To answer the question more fully, when one has a need, but prays for another person first, he is relating to the need objectively and not out of a personal desire. One can either pray for children to satisfy a personal longing, or she can pray for children with an objective perspective, viewing having children as a proper involvement, in as much as it is G-d’s will. The latter being the proper outlook. She demonstrates that she is not personally attached to that need, and views the desired good as something, which she feels no more worthy to have, than someone else with the very same need. As her request for others follows an objective and more realistic view of the Torah’s ideals, G-d takes note, and responds to her first. This is what is meant that she will be answered by G-d before the other person. G-d responding to her first demonstrates that her request was more proper. This does not mean that the other person’s request was improper and will go unanswered. All the Rabbis intended to illustrate with this statement was the perfection found in one who prays for another before herself.
We see that when Channa prayed for a child to devote him to the temple under Eli’s tutelage, she was responded to by G-d, and she bore Samuel the prophet. She too desired a child for the true purpose.
Perhaps G-d withheld children from all of the matriarchs as a method for perfecting their attachment to their children. As the Rabbis teach, “G-d withheld their children as G-d desires the prayers of the righteous.” G-d desired the Jewish nation have leaders who were of the utmost perfection. It could very well be that G-d’s will is that the means by which one becomes perfected, has much to do with the relationship their parents have with them. As G-d withheld children from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, these matriarchs then introspected, discovering ways to perfect themselves. They perfected themselves, and were then granted children. As they raised these children, the forefathers of the Jewish nation, these children were imbued with such objectivity from their perfected parents, being given the proper foundation from youth, which G-d deemed essential to their characters.
It should be noted however, that this is not a game. That is, one cannot expect to be answered first if he or she is really praying for another - with his own selfish motives in the back of his mind. It is only the true, honest, objective prayer for another that raises one to the level in which G-d admires his objectivity, and that G-d will in fact answer his prayer first.
Again, our eyes are opened to the wisdom of Chazal only by using our minds to unravel their secrets. As King Solomon stated at the commencement of Proverbs, one purpose in writing that book was to impart to us the understanding for solving the riddles of the Rabbis. Taking the sayings of the Rabbis literally or blindly, is a practice observed by too many. The Rabbis intended to disclose ideas to those of us who desire the truth, and seek it out through deep study, not casual reading. As King Solomon wrote, “if you seek it (Torah) as silver, and search it out as a buried treasure, then you will understand the fear of God, and the knowledge of God will you find”. Learning, then, is an intense endeavor, involving exertion, and not simplistic and superficial page turning. These are King Solomon’s words.
The ideas of the Rabbis will not be discovered without vigor, patience, intelligence, and humility.