Kvetching for a Cause: The Art of Selfishly Praying for Others
“Heal me Hashem, and I will he healed; save me Hashem, and I will be saved, for You are my prayer.” - Jeremiah 17:14
״רפאני ה׳ וארפא, הושיעני ואושעה, כי תהלתי אתה״ – ירמיהו יז:יד
These words are from this week’s Haftara – Haftarat Beshalach - and on first glance they are quite confusing. “Heal me Hashem, and I will be healed; save me Hashem, and I will be saved, for You are my prayer.” What is the reason for this apparently redundant repetition - and what does it mean that Hashem is His prayer?
The Rabbis split the Shmonei Esrei – the set of 18 quintessential blessings that forms the centerpiece of each of our three daily prayer services – into three main blocks: praise, petition, and thanksgiving. The “petition” category is four times as long as either of the other two sections. And this makes a lot of sense - there’s a way to look at prayer whereby we’re asking for our own needs to be fulfilled, whereby we’re begging Hashem to take care of us. And honestly this is the way that we are most accustomed to think of prayer. This is honestly the way that is most natural for us. We pray to Hashem, and beg Him to heal us, and we have faith that we will be healed. Its about the self. This is the way our society is oriented, and many argue, this is the way of human nature - to be oriented around the self, to focus on satisfying our own needs. We can pray for others, of course, but that will never be as potent as the prayer we give for ourselves. We are, at the end of the day, more invested in ourselves than in anybody else, regardless of what we tell ourselves in our moments of love or idealism. When Rabbi Akiva tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he says it with the assumption that self-love is our natural point of reference. We love ourselves naturally, and then we do the extra work to love our neighbor just as much.
Perhaps in reaction to this, to show us that selfish prayer runs contradictory to the Jewish prayer paradigm, the Shmonei Esrei’s “petition” category is built around blessings that make requests not just for ourselves but for our whole people. They are basically entirely built around communal requests:
“Hashem, please redeem us, redeemer of all the Jewish people.”
“Gather us in, He who gathers in the dispersed of Israel the Jewish people in.”
“Heal all the Jewish people - heal us, and we will be healed. Save us, and we will be saved.”
Our prayer service is constantly training us to NOT be selfishly oriented in our Tefillah, even when it comes time to ask for Hashem to fulfill our needs.
But at the same time, many of our greatest leaders and teachers have prayed for themselves throughout the Torah. The Avot and Imahot all prayed for themselves when they prayed to have children. Shimshon prayed for himself when he begged Hashem to give him his power back one last time. King David prayed for himself when he begged Hashem to forgive him for his sins. In the verse we’ve quoted here, the prophet Jeremiah’s prayer couldn’t be any more self-oriented: “heal ME Hashem, and I will be healed; save ME Hashem, and I will be saved.” And the Rabbis agreed to add a directly personal prayer at the end of the Shmonei Esrei, the Elokai Netzor, where we speak in the first person and are beyond the shadow of a doubt asking for personal protection and deliverance.
But what if I were to tell you that these two paradigms of prayer are not in conflict with one another? What if I were to tell you that when the prophet says, “heal me, and I will be healed,” that exact verse can also be translated as “heal me, and I will heal others?” That even the prayers where we ask specifically on behalf of ourselves, prayers like the Elokai Netzor, can be offered up on behalf of the entire world? What if I were to tell you that there’s a way to think of the “I” that you associate with “yourself,” as a communal “I,” as an “I” that reflects your identity as being one with your entire community, with the entire Jewish people?
Indeed - Rabbi Nachman says that a Tzadik is able to pray for all of the Jewish people and elevate all of their Mitzvot to a level far greater than the level of Kavana they initially put in, by imagining that they are all included within himself. The Tzadik literally imagines his “I” as not including only himself, but rather, including all of the Jewish people, and through them, the entire world. The “I” that represents the singular self, encased in this human body, becomes the “I” of the entire Conscious Universe, speaking a quintessential message to God - a message for which God created the entire world, just so that there would be an “Other” to put it into words.
We find a hint to this at the end of the Shema - Ani Hashem Elokeychem. “I am Hashem your God.” It always sounds funny when a Chazzan says this line - not only says it, repeats it. It’s almost as if the Chazzan is brazenly declaring himself to be God and announcing that blasphemous assertion to the congregation. The Chazzan is obviously not God - at least, not all of God.
So what does this mean? It means that the “I” within us - our inner Ani - THAT is Hashem, our God. In truth, Hashem is the ultimate example, L’havdil (not exactly, but as it were), of the Tzadik who includes all of humanity within His “I”ness. We are all united within the “I” ness of God - God’s conscious inclusion of Us within Him is what guarantees our continued existence from moment to moment.
And when Hashem created us to pray to Him, He made sure to teach us these words - Ani Hashem Elokeychem - to remind us that in the communal “I” is where we find the most potent power of prayer - in the ability to pray for ourselves, in the way that is most natural and most powerful, we can find an ability to pray for the community that works so much powerfully than when we see the rest of Am Yisrael as the “other” and ourselves as praying on their behalf. When we include all of Am Yisrael within our identity, within our “I”ness, we tap into the ultimate potential of prayer.
Now we understand why the prophet Jeremiah ended this verse with “you are my prayer.” Our Neshama, the spark of Hashem within us, is the part of us that allows us to see ourselves as united with all other people. It is the part of us that places us beyond a selfishness that precludes prayer for others and allows us to include others within our prayers. When we see ourselves as an “Ani” that includes all of Am Yisrael, our prayers for Hashem to heal us become prayers for Hashem to heal ALL of us. When we tap into the essence that we share with all other humans, and from that place, we cry from the depths of our heart and beg for Hashem to save us - we are not just begging to save our own skin, but rather, begging on behalf of all of humanity.
Ya’akov Adam Schwartz
Ya’akov (Jacob) Adam Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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