I’m reading a book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin titled, Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual, and Historic Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers, a wonderful collection of stories from the Bible and the Talmud, enriched with insights of Jewish thinkers over the years. It is giving me much to think about.
Not long ago, I wrote a post suggesting that in some cases where we feel are prayers are not being answered, perhaps we are praying for something not in our interest or not in the interest of the common good. In a chapter titled “All Jews are Responsible One for Another”, Rabbi Telushkin makes the same point, albeit more strongly. He write:
Almost no prayers in the Jewish prayer book are recited in the first person; they almost always are offered in the plural. For if people prayed in the first person, their prayers might well be directed either against others or, alternatively, against others’ interests. Thus, when a person prays that he receive a job for which he has applied, in effect, he is also praying that the other applicants be rejected. Only when people address God in the plural are they likely to pray for that which is universally beneficial.
I’m not sure I would go as far as Rabbi Telushkin and suggest that “only” when we address God in the plural are we likely to be praying for something worthy of being prayed for. However, it does seem to me a good test of the object of our prayer might be to ask ourselves: Could I make this prayer in the plural? Is this one I could phrase as something “we ask” rather than “I ask”? Even the act of asking the question serves as a check against mere self-interest in prayer. And the answer to the question might be very revealing.