The following drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Vayera 5747, (1986), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
In this week's parsha we read how, Abraham, on his journey with his wife Sarah to Gerar, pretended that she was his sister, so that he would not be killed. King Avimelech had Sarah seized and taken to his palace. Then G-d came to Avimelech in a dream and explained the situation, and Avimelech, in consternation, returned her to Abraham, together with presents, and protestations of innocence, so as to restore the peace between them. But meanwhile G-d had punished Avimelech and his whole court by making them sterile. So Abraham prayed for the removal of this punishment, and Avimelech and his court were healed. Shortly thereafter Sarah conceived, and gave birth to Isaac.
The Gemara explains that there is a connection between these two incidents: the merit which Abraham gained, in praying for Avimelech, resulted in Sarah's conception. From here we derive that "one who prays that a need of his fellow man be met, when he himself has the very same need, will be answered first" (Bava Kama 97).
A question we may ask is this: Abraham had so many merits, why did he need this merit of praying for Avimelech to enable Sarah to conceive? After all, he discovered monotheism single-handedly; his kindness and hospitality were phenomenal; and he was in the process of passing ten tests, each one more difficult than the last! So why was this prayer for Avimelech such a big thing?
An answer which occurred to me is this: acts of kindness often carry a reward with them. If you give someone tzedaka, you get some pleasure from his joy and gratitude. If you visit someone in hospital, then you derive some satisfaction from his pleasure in having visitors. And so on. But prayer is a much more thankless activity. The beneficiary may not even know you are praying for him (and should not know, according to the Ari). Also (unless you are a tzaddik) you are not likely to see any immediate dramatic results to your prayers.
For this reason, Abraham's prayer carried such great merit. But, it seems to me, there is another, deeper, reason for the merit attached to this prayer. Remember, Abraham was ninety-nine years old at this time, and Sarah eighty-nine, and they desperately wanted a child themselves, to fulfill G-d's prophecy of their becoming the ancestors of a great nation. Someone in Abraham's position could perhaps be excused for thinking: "Why should I worry about Avimelech's court's barrenness? I'm concerned with my wife's barrenness! Let Avimelech deal with his own problems!" But such was Abraham's selflessness that he ignored his own pressing needs so as to pray for someone else. Abraham didn't let his own problems blind him to the problems of others.
It is only too human, if you find out that someone else has the same problems that you do, to feel relieved. In fact, that is a reason for the success of group therapy (not that I want to criticize group therapy). However a religious Jew should have the opposite reaction -- he should feel saddened on hearing of someone else's problems, even if they are the same as his own!
There is a story of Reb Chaim Halberstam, the Zanzer Rav. He organized collections for the poor of Zanz. One day his wife complained to him: "You know, that woman who asks you for money every week before Shabbos -- well, she spends it on duck and other luxuries, which we can't even afford for our table!" Reb Chaim replied: "Really? I'm glad you told me! Now that I know she has a taste for duck, I should collect even more money for her!"
I would like to end with a piece of practical advice, which I got from my Rebbe, Rabbi Scheinberg (shlita). If there is a problem you have, don't sink into self-pity. Perhaps don't even pray for yourself. Rather look for someone who has the same problem, and pray for him. If we behave in such a way, we may earn the merit to have our problem alleviated, as happened to Abraham.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
"A tree of life for those who embrace it"
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org