Praying For Others
Rashi writes that the section recounting Sarah's conception of Yitzhak (Genesis 21:1) is juxtaposed to Avraham's prayers that Avimelech's wife and maids be able to conceive (20:17-18) to teach that if a person prays on behalf of somebody else when he himself needs that same thing, he will be answered first.
A man once approached Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein of Bnei Brak with a fascinating question about this concept:
It is traditionally understood that this procedure works as a reward for the selflessness demonstrated by somebody who desperately needs something himself, yet is able to magnanimously overlook his own personal needs to pray for another person in need of that very same thing. The man questioned whether this technique is effective even when a person prays for somebody else only out of a hope that doing so will cause him to be answered, or must the prayers for the other be genuine in order for this method to work?
Rabbi Zilberstein answered based on the Maharal's explanation of this idea. The Maharal writes that God is the source of all blessings which come to the world. However, in order for His blessings to descend upon a person, there must be a conduit which connects that person to the Heavenly source of goodness and facilitates the transfer. One such channel is prayer. When we pray to God, we connect ourselves to Him and allow Him to bestow His bounty upon us. When one prays on behalf of another and his prayers are answered, he becomes the channel which links his friend to the Divine source of blessing.
When a person uses a hose to water his lawn, the hose - which serves as the conduit for the transfer of water - becomes wet even before the grass does. Similarly, a person who merits serving as the medium by which God bestows His kindness upon another becomes "wet" with the goodness even before it reaches its ultimate target. Therefore, although it may be contrary to conventional wisdom, the power of prayer is so great that one who prays for his friend - even for ulterior motives - will still merit to be answered first.
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NO BREAD FOR THE GUESTS
Rashi writes (18:8) that although Avraham had requested Sarah to make bread, it wasn't served because it became impure when Sarah touched it, and the Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that Avraham was careful to eat all of his food in a state of ritual purity. Although Avraham observed this stringency, why did he impose it on the guests and deny them the opportunity to enjoy the bread?
Rabbeinu Bechaye notes that this episode occurred on Pesach (see Rashi 19:3). Because Avraham wouldn't eat bread that became impure, Sarah stopped making it, and it became chametz. Because it is forbidden to derive any benefit from chametz on Pesach, Avraham was unable to serve it to his guests.
Alternatively, the Chavatzeles HaSharon explains that it is forbidden to cook on Yom Tov for non-Jewish guests. Because Avraham was no longer able to eat the matzah which had become impure, Sarah was no longer permitted to prepare it for the guests, who appeared in the guise of Arabs (Rashi 18:4).
Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik suggests that part of the mitzvah of hosting guests is to make them so comfortable that they feel as if they are part of the host family. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to serve them something that the host himself would not eat. (Pardes Yosef, Peninim Vol. 6)
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AVRAHAM'S UNIQUE CHALLENGE
Avraham was the paragon of piety and righteousness. Without precedent, he had single-handedly discovered God, intuited the laws of the Torah and obeyed them even before they were given, and spread the knowledge of God in the world. He had already passed with flying colors the vast majority of the 10 tests to which God subjected him (Avot 5:3).
After passing the test of the Akeidah, the angel told him, "Now I know that you are a God-fearing person" (22:12). Why was Avraham's fear of God established only at this time? Hadn't he repeatedly proven it by all that he accomplished in life?
The Vilna Gaon explains that the value of a mitzvah is measured by the degree to which its performance runs counter to a person's natural inclinations and represents a more difficult test of his devotion to God. Avraham had clearly proven his devotion to God and had passed numerous trials, but a number of them played into the central attribute of his Divine service, which was chesed. On the other hand, although the willingness to personally sacrifice one's own son to God is difficult for any father, its challenge was significantly magnified for one whose entire life was devoted to the trait of kindness. As this trial required Avraham to act counter to his nature and all that he stood for, it was considered the trial which uniquely demonstrated Avraham's devotion to God.
While every person has different mitzvot which specifically challenge him, the Talmud (Avot 4:1) teaches that the strong person is one who conquers his evil inclination, and that the harder a mitzvah is for a person, the greater will be the reward (Avot 5:26). We can learn this lesson from the tremendous praise given to Avraham for acting counter to his nature at the Akeidah.