On Prayer

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), father of the modern Jewish musar movement (Jewish moral and ethical teachings) was once asked: "How do you take care of your spiritual needs?" He responded, “By taking care of somebody else’s physical needs.”

A ship foundered and wrecked in a storm. Only two men survived. They managed to swim to a nearby deserted island. Alone and frightened, they prayed to God. In time, they found sources of nourishment and discovered that they could construct shelter for themselves. More confident, they pondered whose prayer was more powerful. To determine the answer, they divided the island between them and lived separately on opposite sides of the island.

Not surprisingly, the first thing each man prayed for was good food. The next morning, the first man awoke to see a fruit-bearing tree growing on his side of the island. Its fruit was sweet and delicious. No fruit tree grew on the other side of the island.

The second week, the men grew lonely and longed for human companionship. Each man prayed to God for a wife. The following day, another shipwreck delivered a lone survivor -- a woman -- who swam to the first man’s side of the island and remained there with the first man. On the second man’s side of the island, there was no one else.

In the weeks to come, both men prayed for cozy homes, protective clothing, and better food. In each case, the first man’s prayers materialized like magic, but the second man had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship to pass by the island and retrieve him and his wife so they could leave the island and return to civilization. The following morning, a cruise ship anchored near the island and the first man and his wife boarded the ship. The first man decided that the second man should not be permitted on board the ship because he had been unworthy to receive God’s blessings. The first man knew this because none of the second man’s prayers had been answered.

The second man said, “How can you leave me forsaken on this island?”

“Easily,” said the first man, “You are unworthy to leave. God did not answer any of your prayers. God answered each of mine. My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them.”

“But God did answer my prayers,” said the first man, “each and every one. I prayed that all your prayers would be answered.”

God is a cosmic vending machine Who, if we insert prayers, will respond to our desires. Rabbi Salanter helps us steer a far better spiritual course in life: By taking care of somebody else’s physical needs, our spiritual needs are met. The second man understood this. The Hasidic rebbe, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, taught, “Rather than take care of somebody else’s soul and your own body, take care of somebody else’s body and your own soul.” If we live in this way, all genuine prayers will be answered.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.