“The Benefit of Broad-heartedness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we read of the miraculous birth of Isaac. At the ripe old age of 90, long after the barren Sarah had despaired of ever bearing a child, we read in Genesis 21:1: “Va’Hashem pah’kad et Sarah,” and G-d remembered Sarah. Sarah becomes pregnant, gives birth to a son to Abraham in his old age, and Abraham calls the child, Isaac.

Our rabbis are perplexed. After all the years of childlessness, after all the years of trying to bear a child, after the many hours, days and years of prayer, suddenly Sarah is remembered. Why now? Rashi cites the cogent Talmudic statement found in Bava Kama 92a that “if someone prays for mercy on behalf of another person, and he himself needs that very same thing, he is answered first.”

The reason that Sarah was remembered at this point in her life was due to a very special prayer that Abraham offered, a prayer that was more efficacious than any of the numerous prayers that Abraham had previously offered.

What was that special prayer? Instead of praying for Sarah, Abraham offered a prayer for others who had similar problems. In Genesis 20:17, we learn that Abraham prayed for Abimelech, King of Grar, his wife and his maidservants, who were unable to bear children after G-d had punished Abimelech for abducting Sarah.

Abraham desperately wanted a child from Sarah. He prayed and gave charity and did many acts of chessed (loving-kindness). He welcomed guests from near and far, and even circumcised himself at the advanced age of 99, but nothing seemed to help. And yet, when he prayed for Abimelech, whose family was suffering from the inability to have children, not only was his prayer for Abimelech and his household answered, but Sarah became pregnant as well.

Rabbi Simcha Bunam notes that, logically, Abraham should not have prayed for Abimelech, since it was against Abraham’s own best interest. If Abimelech was left infertile, then the world would have known for certain that the child that Sarah bore was indeed fathered by Abraham, but if Abimelech could bear children, then the skeptics would likely exclaim that Sarah lived for decades with Abraham and had no children. She spends one night with Abimelech, and suddenly she’s pregnant! Despite this threat, Abraham did not hesitate and prayed for Abimelech. While it’s true that the Midrash says that baby Isaac emerged looking like the spitting image of his father Abraham, so that no one would be able to question his paternity, there would always be doubters and skeptics who would say otherwise.

The popular contemporary author and Maggid (traveling speaker), Rabbi Paysach Krohn, wrote an unusually poignant article in the current issue of Kol, the Orthodox Caucus’s newsletter that was devoted to the issue of singles, about the thousands of unmarried people who have difficulty finding a shidduch (mate). In his article, Rabbi Krohn strongly encourages parents who already have married children to try to feel the pain of others who still have unmarried children. He proceeds to tell the story of a particular parent who was having a very difficult time finding a shidduch for his daughter. After many failed dates, the father, at wits end, felt thoroughly frustrated. He wondered if G-d was trying to tell him something. In response, he proceeded to make a list of every single man and woman that he could think of, and every time he made a call on behalf of his daughter, he made a call on behalf of someone else on the list. Within five weeks his daughter met the person she eventually married. Rabbi Krohn notes that he is able to confirm that every word of this story is true, because he was that father. He felt that G-d was telling him that he should not be so focused on himself and his daughter, and become more sensitive to the needs of others. If he would become more caring, he was certain that G-d would help.

Similarly, the Otzer HaTorah, published by Artscroll, cites the story of a young man who was trying to start a diamond business. The aspiring entrepreneur went about asking his friends and relatives for leads to potential customers. While many of his friends and relatives wished him well, most were reluctant to provide the names of their own customers. Finally, he went to Reb Moshe Mordechai Heschel, who had not yet become the Kopitchnitzer Rebbe and was at that time still a diamond dealer. Rav Moshe immediately gave the man his full list of buyers and sellers. Astonished, the young man asked him which names he should try? Reb Moshe Mordechai Heschel told him that he should try all of them, and any of them! “But I don’t want to take any business away from you!” the young man exclaimed. Rav Moshe replied with a smile, “Whatever was inscribed in heaven as destined for me, you cannot take away. Our parnasah (livelihood) is in the hands of the Al-mighty, and He has enough for both of us!”

It is the time-honored Jewish practice that whenever one is in need, one should turn to prayer and good deeds, and hope for a positive reply from heaven. By adding the additional element of broad-heartedness a person can virtually guarantee that a positive response will be forthcoming. That, of course, is the reason why much of Jewish prayer and all of the Amidah is formulated in the plural. While we may need healing in our family for our own relatives, there surely must be others who are in need as well, perhaps even in more desperate need than we are. If we have them in mind, G-d will respond to our needs as well.

May you be blessed.