Unselfish Prayer?

In Jewish tradition, we think of prayer as tefillah, self-examination; shevach, praise; and bakashahrequest. Traditional bakashot are unselfish general requests that benefit many: healing, world peace, good weather for the planet.

But when Abraham’s servant Eliezer sets out to find a wife for Abraham’s son, he offers a rather self-serving and specific bakashah. “God,” he prays, “send me a young woman who will offer water to my camels, because that’s the kind of person I’m looking for.” Understood literally, Eliezer’s bakashah does not seem to fit the model offered by most Jewish prayers. How can we understand it more deeply?

Our sages said, “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven” (Talmud Berachot 32b).  The 10th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides interprets the saying: all the physical characteristics of creatures in the natural world are in the hands of heaven. But everything else – our thoughts, actions, and feelings – is motivated by “the fear of heaven.”

If we follow Rambam’s line of thinking, Eliezer is expressing his hope of finding a young woman who is motivated by the fear of heaven. Eliezer prays, “God, reach out, so that the younger generation may know your presence, and be motivated by that knowledge to choose compassion for all creatures. I want to entrust the future to this kind of person.” To this unselfish, general request that benefits many, Amen!

Inspired by Rabbi Marc Wolf

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