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Home » Chabad, Tragedy, Vayera

Vayera: Can You Feel My Pain?

Submitted by on November 2, 2009 – 4:16 pmNo Comment | 5,194 views

Praying For Others

“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!”

Were you ever moved to tears by the plight of another? Have you ever cared deeply enough to pray for another’s well being? I’m, sure the answer is yes, but here comes the greater challenge. Do you pray for others with the same fullness of heart that you muster for yourself?

Abraham and Abimelech

Abimelech, king of the Philistines, abducted Sarah, our beautiful and righteous matriarch. When all the wombs in Abimelech’s household were suddenly sealed, Abimelech understood it as a Divine punishment for his heinous act. He hastened to apologize to Sarah and Abraham, who, in turn, prayed for his wives. The Torah informs us that yet before Abimelech’s household was cured G-d remembered Sarah and she conceived the Patriarch 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)

The 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 cynically 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. can you feel my pain - innerstreamWhen we pray on behalf of others we stimulate blessing from on high 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 those who offered the prayer and thus they benefit.

Unfettered Love

This explanation satisfies the mind, but not the heart. The very notion that self centered manipulators might benefit from their manipulation seems outrageous.

I would like to offer a completely different approach. Jews are inherently connected to each other; our hearts and souls are one. Cohesiveness and mutual love is thus the natural state among Jews. When one part of the body is healed, all other parts benefit. This is not because the other parts show empathy and deserve to benefit; it is 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.

In truth every Jew should be affected by the ills of all Jews and every Jew should be 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; it is not 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. Once this oneness rises to the surface everyone within the circle of our bond benefits. (6)

From this viewpoint, the reason our prayer for others helps us first is that my taking time away from my own needs to pray for others expresses a common root that is otherwise deeply concealed. This oneness is brought forth irrespective of our intentions, be they cynical or altruistic, because though we don’t know it, the fact of our oneness is the true reason we pray for each other. If I were to ask you, can you feel my pain? Your answer would be, on the surface, not quite, but deep down, of course I do. (7)

Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg

We are coming up on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the fist Yhartzeit of Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg, the Chabad Emissaries in Mumbai, India, who were murdered by terrorists nearly one year ago. Gabi and Rivkah exemplified the essential oneness of our people by willingly sacrificing their material comforts to serve the Jews and travelers of Mumbai. Rivkah confessed to her friends that she rarely had a moment for herself and that she worked at a constant and frenetic pace, but, she was happy. This is why they came to Mumbai, she explained, if they had wanted to relax they would have stayed at home.

In the way they lived their life and in the way they gave their life Gabi and Rivkah expressed the intrinsic unity of our people. The entire Jewish world mourned their passing; for several days we transcended our differences and became one. We all mourned their loss, we all prayed for their little son Moshele and we all empathized with their grieving families. With their passing our people lost two tireless ambassadors; two paragons of selfless love, two leaders who had set themselves aside to tend to the needs of others.

As we approach their first Yhartzeit let us resolve that our generation will not be denied the unity summoned by their dedication. We can each resolve to continue what they began; each in our own small way. We can resolve to set our needs aside and work for the needs of others. We can resolve to reach out and help others as they did. We can resolve to develop a viewpoint that encompasses our entire nation and allows us to view ourselves through the prism of a larger unified whole.

We can do this in the memory of Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg, but we can go one step further and do this so that Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg do not become a mere memory. Their efforts can continue to through us. Their memory can become our vibrant and living legacy.

Questions For Further Discussion

Would you pray for others even if they committed a crime against you as Abimelech did to Abraham?
Have you ever felt pure empathy for a pure stranger? Are ordinary people capable of it?
How do you propose Gabi and Rivkah Holzberg be remembered?


  1. Genesis 21: 1.
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama92a. 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 follows the chronological order in which these stories unfolded. See Gur Aryeh on Genesis 21: 1 and P’nei Yehoshua on Baba Kama 92a that the proximity merely supports the other proofs cited in the Talmud and in Rashi’s commentary there. Rabbi Menachem M Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained 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. 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 of sufficient note to draw attention.
  3. In fact, see Pirush Hageonim on Baba Kama 92a 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 concept 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. Thus we know that such prayer is answered even if they are intended for self gain. In his discussion on this subject The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that the intention of the prayer does not affect the blessing that the other accrues from it. The primary point is that it benefits others and that is sufficient cause for reward. Naturally, the Rebbe added, the proper way to pray for others is altruistically.
  5. See Etz Yosef (In Ein Yaakov) on Baba Kama 92a.
  6. See Toras Menachem, 5743, pp 476-477 and 480-481 that this illustrates how great our love for a fellow Jew must be. Even though we have the same need and by Torah law are required to pray for ourselves first, we must still set our needs aside and pray for others with similar needs 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 take it on as an obligation. After all, this behavior reflects and reveals our essential oneness.
  7. The truth of this is reflected in the efficacy of our cynical, self-centered, prayers. G-d blesses the others on whose behalf we pray, though we are thinking primarily of ourselves, because we and those for whom we pray are in truth a single entity.
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