Help Others – Help Yourself by Rabbi Josh Kahn


Tefillah is one of the greatest gifts we are given. The Avot, our forefathers, had such an appreciation for this tool that we patterned our daily Tefillot after their practices. One of the special ingredients of Tefillah emerges from this week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYeira. Rashi, commenting on BeReishit 21:1, quotes Chazal (Bava Kama 92a) who note the strange juxtaposition of the story of Avimelech taking Sarah and the news of Sarah’s pregnancy. The stories are placed together to teach that “Anyone who prays for someone else while he himself is in need of the same prayer, Hashem will grant him the request first.” As a result of Avraham’s Tefillah on behalf of Avimelech, he is answered first for himself and Sarah thus becomes pregnant.

In what way should praying on another’s behalf affect one’s own Tefillah? The Pasuk describes the reciprocal nature of human personalities: “KaMayim HaPanim LaPanim Kein Leiv HaAdam LaAdam,” “Just as water reflects the image of a face, so too people reflect one another” (Mishlei 27:19). A person usually responds nicely when another is kind to him. Hashem seems to treat us the same way. If Hashem finds us to be forgiving, He too forgives. In this vein, the Gemara states that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because we upheld the law in cases of disputes. It seems to be a very bizarre critique – after all, is it so terrible to uphold the proper law? Furthermore, there are other reasons Chazal tell us the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed! The idea being conveyed is that Hashem’s attribute of justice demanded that the Beit HaMikdash be destroyed because of other sins. However, Hashem turned to the Middah of mercy and thought about invoking it. When Hashem saw that the Jewish people were not merciful to one another, choosing strict judgment instead, Hashem decided to also use justice. Had the plaintiff not demanded repayment from the defendant, had the rich man been willing to give more to the poor man, had we been charitable and not hid behind justice, Hashem too may have been merciful and saved the Beit HaMikdash.

Tefillah is a time of judgment. We beseech Hashem to grant our requests, to try to help us. Chazal are teaching us that if we want Hashem’s help, we too must help others. This fundamental lesson permeates Ma’amarei Chazal in Masechet Ta’anit (23-25) through stories such as the origin of Avinu Malkeinu. The Gemara tells a story of Rabbi Eliezer who recited twenty-four Berachot for rain, which Hashem left unanswered. Then, Rabbi Akiva stood up and said “Avinu Malkeinu Ein Lanu Melech Ela Atah,” “Our father, our king, we have no king but you.” Immediately, rain fell. Quick to defend the great Rabbi Eliezer, the Gemara points out that Rabbi Akiva’s effective Tefillah should not be seen as an indictment of Rabbi Eliezer. He, too, was a Tzaddik. However, Rabbi Akiva merited having his Tefillah answered because he was a kind and forgiving person.

The connection between a person’s kindness vis-à-vis others and the power of his Tefillah is evident from the following story recorded by Rabbi Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Hanoch Teller. A wealthy businessman named Reuven Schmidt was visiting Yerushalayim for Sukkot. One night of Chol HaMo’eid, he decided to walk around Mei’ah She’arim and experience some of the lively Simchot Beit Hasho’eivot taking place there. At the Stoliner Yeshiva, Reuven was mesmerized by the dancing. As he stood on the side watching, he noticed a man who, in spite of all of the festivities, looked very sad. Reuven approached him and the two started to converse. While the pair was making small talk, Reuven thought that the man looked familiar, but was unable to place his face. As the conversation became more serious, Reuven asked the man what was bothering him. The man explained that he was the fundraiser for the Stoliner Yeshiva and economic times were very tough. The Rabbei’im and staff had not been paid in two months. The Rosh HaYeshiva said that the fundraiser couldn’t leave town until he had raised the necessary funds to pay the staff and Rabbei’im. The man explained that he had run out of options. Reuven asked how much money needed to be raised. The fundraiser explained that he needed $20,000 and was then shocked by Reuven’s offer when Reuven stated, “If you raise $10,000 I will match it. I will give you until tomorrow night to come up with the money.” Reuven gave his new friend the name of the hotel where he was staying, and the two men parted ways. The following night, the fundraiser showed up at the hotel with an assortment of Shekalim, dollars, checks, and change totaling $10,000 and Reuven, true to his word, wrote a matching check on the spot. The fundraiser thanked him profusely and was ready to say farewell, but before he could leave, Reuven stopped him.

“Aren’t you curious why a stranger would so readily commit to write a generous check to a person he doesn’t know?” Reuven inquired of the fundraiser. The fundraiser was certainly wondering that exact question, but he had been afraid to ask. Reuven said to the fundraiser, “I don’t know if you recognize me, but I am from Boro Park. About 40 years ago I got married, and both my wife’s family and my own were very poor. Neither family had money to afford some of the basics, much less to throw an elaborate wedding. I didn’t have the money to buy myself a decent suit, but I worked up the courage and went into a suit store. I explained that I was getting married and couldn’t afford to pay for the suit right now but would come back and pay them with my wedding money. They looked at me, decided I looked like an honest person, and we made the necessary arrangements for the suit. With this victory in hand, I decided to go into the liquor store. We couldn’t afford to serve any alcohol at the wedding, and again, I made the same request and it was met with the same success. “Having been lucky twice, I walked out of the liquor store and standing in front of me was the greatest dancer in all of Boro Park. If this man came to a wedding and danced, the wedding became special. Armed with all of the confidence in the world, I approached this man and invited him to my wedding. He responded that he was very busy that day, but he would record the address of the wedding and see if he could make it. On the day of the wedding, not only did he come, but he made the wedding into a celebration with his lively dancing. I will never forget what he did.” With tears in his eyes, Reuven looked at the fundraiser and said, “You were that dancer! I have been waiting 40 years to pay you back.” The two embraced and celebrated with a spontaneous Simchat Beit HaSho’eivah in the hotel room that Chol HaMo’eid night. The fundraiser’s Tefillot were answered. He raised the necessary funds because he had been willing to help others when they were in need. 

The great power of this idea is the realization that successful Tefillah is within our own control. While we are reliant on the great kindness of Hashem, we can influence Hashem’s response to our Tefillot through our own actions. Hopefully, the internalization of this idea will enable us to have all of our prayers answered.

Escaping Responsibility by Nachum Fisch

A Benefit and a Pleasure by Rabbi Scott Friedman