Praying with and for each other: On love and hope

Abraham and Sarah pray and hope separately

Isaac meets Rebecca for the first time, in this oil painting by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, circa 1640. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Isaac meets Rebecca for the first time, in this oil painting by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, circa 1640.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There are, according to some scholars of religion, really only four types of prayer.
First, there are the prayers that say “Thank you”; then there are the supplications that say “I need”; then there are those in which we say “I am sorry,” or “This is not what I was supposed to do” and “This is what I failed to do.”
Last are the more unique prayers in which we are moved to say, “Wow!” These are the prayers that come forth when our gratitude and awe are mixed in supreme moments. These are the prayers of wonder, awe and amazement which, in the language of Abraham Joshua Heschel, should be at the core of our spiritual lives.
Indeed, each of these four forms – thank you, give me, oops and wow – are what make up the majority of the prayers of most spiritual traditions.
But how do these different kinds of prayers function in terms of relationships? Is prayer primarily about how we as individuals turn to God? Or is prayer about how we – as members of a particular community – turn to God as a collective, for the collective? Yet perhaps there is a third mode, and a fifth kind of prayer. If one reads the Torah portions of these weeks carefully, it seems there is a possibility that prayer can play a central role in our interpersonal relationships. The narratives about Abraham and Sarah as well as those about Isaac and Rebekah highlight the power of prayer and love.
While throughout the Bible spontaneous and individual entreaties abound, there are some key moments where we see how prayer functions and sustains hope and love – because of how it can function between people in the most intimate relationships.
There are some central moments in our history where prayer functions in these ways. The best-known example is Moses praying to God to heal Miriam, which then becomes the basis for the prayers for healing we say today. But Moses’s call: “El na refa na la” – “Please God, heal her!” – is not the first time prayer is offered on behalf of others.
While Abraham and Sarah struggle with the challenges they face, from finding a home to starting a family, most of the time they seem to pray and hope separately.
When Sarah dies, however, Abraham becomes the first Jewish mourner, offering a eulogy and burying her with what become for our people dramatic signs of both eternal love and hope.
Most striking in the next narrative, however, is how differently Isaac and Rebekah seem to love and hope together. Their love literally causes Rebekah to practically fall off her camel when she sees Isaac for the first time; when Isaac meets her, he prays and loves fully for the first time (Genesis 24: 63-67). Theirs is the first complete love affair of the Bible, and of our people.
While they too have their struggles and don’t always agree about everything, at the core of their love seems to be a deep understanding and capacity to pray and hope together. When they too struggle to create a family, Isaac not only prays and turns to God, but he does so together with Rebekah.
According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator, the particular language of “ vayetar ” – “Isaac entreated God together with/in the presence of his wife” (Gen. 25:21), indicates they prayed together, simultaneously. Rather than being alone in their fears, desires and hopes, they turned to God together and prayed together, in the same space.
While we may need our separate spaces some of the time, this moment of joint prayer is striking.
When we struggle and try to help others in their struggles, there is perhaps no greater way to be with someone in their pain than to pray together, with and for each other. Of all the myriad of ways we can help those closest to us when they are afraid or in pain, crying out together to the forces of the universe to respond and to heal is perhaps the most powerful way to express our love and hope.
It can be, as Rashi notes, this kind of prayer which signals and calls forth abundance, and through which love expands.
The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions, a president’s scholar and a teacher for the Shalom Hartman Institute.