Parshat Chayei Sarah: Praying for a Friend

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃
Isaac went out to converse in the field towards evening and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold camels are coming.
Genesis 24:63

Our physical world is a reflection of the spiritual one. Just as one’s whole body is affected by what is ingested by the mouth1, the mouth also has the power to influence the complete soul structure2 of humanity through prayer. This is one way to understand the Talmud’s teaching: “כל המבקש רחמים על חבירו והוא צריך לאותו דבר הוא נענה תחילה - anyone who requests mercy for their friend, for something that they also need assistance with, the one who is praying [for their friend] will be answered first.”3

The Rabbis teach that Isaac established the afternoon prayer, Mincha,4 when he went out to pray5 for his father, Abraham, to remarry Hagar6. Immediately, we are told that Rebecca encounters Isaac.7 Mincha - מנחה, is also an anagram for comfort9 - נחמה  and the verse8 teaches us that Isaac was comforted by Rebecca.

The Yalkut Reuveni writes that when a person who is praying for the need of their friend, they must desire it so personally that it reaches the level of “והוא צריך לאותו דבר - they themselves need that particular thing”; that the need for the friend is now felt as their own. He explains that it is in the merit of attaching oneself to the struggle of another that allows for the one praying to be answered by God first.

Mincha” literally means an offering, as in the case of those sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel10, but it is the only one of the three daily prayers whose name isn’t connected to the time of the day. The Tur11 introduces the laws of Mincha with a warning: “וכשיגיע זמן תפלת המנחה יתפלל ומאוד צריך ליזהר בה - When the time for the afternoon prayer arrives, one must be exceedingly careful with it.” He offers two distinct reasons for this. The first is because Elijah The Prophet, in the confrontation with the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, was only answered during Mincha.12 Additionally, he points out the morning and evening prayers are connected to known elements of the day, sunrise and sunset, while the afternoon prayers occur while a person is often preoccupied with work and one must be “proactive to focus their heart on prayer.”

The Kli Yakar writes that Elijah and Isaac were answered during the time of Mincha, because that time of day is separated the most from the harshness of the night.13  Due to its lack of transitional markers, mincha can lend itself to being subsumed and forgotten in the rest of the day. This is alluded to in the first letter of the words above: לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב - which forms “לבלע” - to be swallowed up.14

Rashi’s prooftext, drawn from Masechet Berachot, that “לָשׂ֥וּחַ - to converse” is a term that indicates prayer is from Psalms.15 There, King David frames “A prayer of the impoverished person” as one who “pours forth their conversation in front of God.” The Midrash16 says that whenever the term “impoverished” is used, it is referring to the collective. By first establishing our connection and responsibility to the whole, we can follow up with our specific needs.17

The mystical tradition speaks of four different worldly planes,18 each corresponding to the four various dimensions of scriptural interpretation.19 We are most connected to the world of “Asiyah - doing”, and consequently, the pshat - simple interpretation of a verse.20 Although all of the daily prayers were established by the patriarchs, only mincha has a verse that is understood as an explicit mention of prayer.

Perhaps this is because praying can always be a part of our effort to affect change, and sometimes it is the only effort available. While it might feel like we can’t solve all of the world's problems, we can certainly take notice of them and pray to alleviate the pain that they cause.

There is comfort in knowing that we are doing all that we can, especially when we recognize that the desired outcome is out of our control. Isaac, who is the Patriarch who represents avodah - the Temple service which is now fulfilled through prayer,21 understood through his own experience as a near-sacrifice that substitutions are sometimes necessary. The camels (גמל g’mal) - that he sees after he prays allude to the shift from judgment to kindness (גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים), brought about by his father Abraham.22 By replacing feelings of hopeless disappointment with the positive power of kindness, we can focus our prayers23 on each other and toward transformative action.

1. The mouth receives the benefit first.
2. Ramchal.
3. Bava Kamma 92a.
4. Brachot 26b.
5. Rashi explains “to converse” means prayer.
6. See Rashi on Genesis 24:62 and Yetiv Lev.
7. Genesis 24:64.
8. See Toras HaRemez.
9. Genesis 24:67.
10. Genesis 4:3-4.
11. Orach Chaim 232:1.
12. Brachot 6b.
13. Kli Yakar Genesis 24:63.
14. See Ohr Olam.
15. 102:1.
16. Midrash Tehillim 5:2.
17. See Minchas Elazar.
18. See Pardes Rimonim.
19. See HaLekach V’Halebuv.
20. See Sifsie Tzadik.
21. Taanis 2a.
22. See Tzemach Tzedek.
23. In Hebrew, Adam and Eve together have the numerical value of “judgment” while Isaac and Rebecca equal “prayer”.