The Key Elements of Successful Prayer


We often think of great characters in the Torah as being the forefathers, or perhaps Moses. But if we do that, we overlook someone who did something that nobody else in the Torah ever managed: he prayed for an extremely specific set of events, which began to emerge even before he finished praying.

And I think we can learn some very important and useful lessons about what kind of prayer is likely to find similar favor from G-d.

Here is the text:

And he said, “Oh G-d of my master Abraham’s [house], approach me this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water. Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.

The maiden was very beautiful—[and] a virgin, no man having known her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.”

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

And then, after being welcomed into Laban’s house, the servant tells the story:

“I am Abraham’s servant,” he began. “G-d has greatly blessed my master, who has become rich—giving him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and asses. And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore my master a son in her old age, and he has assigned to him everything he owns. Now my master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

And I said to my master, ‘What if the woman does not follow me?’

He replied to me, ‘G-d, whose ways I have followed, will send a messenger with you and make your errand successful; and you will get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Thus only shall you be freed from my adjuration: if, when you come to my kindred, they refuse you—only then shall you be freed from my adjuration.’

“I came today to the spring, and I said: ‘O G-d, God of my master Abraham’s [house], if You would indeed grant success to the errand on which I am engaged!

As I stand by the spring of water, let the young woman who comes out to draw and to whom I say, “Please, let me drink a little water from your jar,” and who answers, “You may drink, and I will also draw for your camels”—let her be the wife whom G-d has decreed for my master’s son.’

I had scarcely finished speaking to my heart, when Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder, and went down to the spring and drew. And I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ She quickly lowered her jar and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels.

Notice how his prayer is so quickly and fully answered! This did not happen to David or Moses, Avraham or Isaac or Jacob. This servant somehow has hit on a form of prayer that G-d wants to reward!

Which leads us to the question: what makes his prayer so successful?

First off, as I have written before, the servant describes his prayer as “speaking to my heart.” This is the binding of our body and soul, captured symbolically in the “and you shall bind [these words] upon your hands, and as a sign between your eyes” of the tefillin that we are commanded to wear. When we use our divinely-gifted soul to elevate our physical selves (and the physical world around us), then it shows that we understand what G-d wants man to do in the world overall: inject spiritual energies into the physical plane, use our words to uplift everything. G-d loves it when we do this.

But there are so many more things that this prayer is and does that we can learn from!

It is clear, for example, that the servant is praying on someone else’s behalf. The prayer is not about himself, or his wants or needs or desires. He could have given up, declared failure, and gone home. He could even have taken the camels and stolen the wealth for himself! But he does none of these things: he acts with consideration and concern for someone else before himself. Caring about others, investing in what they need, is doing G-d’s work.

The servant, by putting his heart and soul into fulfilling his vow, is also investing in the long-term, as opposed to the short-term benefit. He may have understood what all students of the Torah know: the results of his prayer were a critical link in the chain of the history of the world. Avraham’s nameless servant is enshrined for all time because of his prayer, a prayer that was more favored by G-d than any other we know. And so, even though finding a wife for his master’s son may have brought him no personal benefit (and indeed may have come at a cost, since failure in the mission would have left him wealthier), we read his story even now.  Torah Judaism reinforces the importance of setting aside short-term pleasures and distractions. Instead, we aim for the Big Picture, investing in intergenerational continuity and relationships.

The servant is also keeping his word. By fulfilling his vow to his master, he is being upright, validating the trust that Avraham invested in him. Acting honorably brings divine favor.

Lastly, it is clear that Avraham does not tell his servant to pray. The idea seems to be his own, born of desperation. When in doubt, he sought divine intervention.

If we tie it all together, we have the ingredients to effective prayer: seek to uplift ourselves and the world; pray for others at least as much as we pray for ourselves; invest our prayer in the timeless as opposed to what we perceive as short-term benefit; act with honor; seek out a connection with G-d whenever our path is unclear.

Avraham’s servant is famous in perpetuity, not for his name but for his deeds. We can – and should – learn from his example. G-d is our master, just as surely as Avraham was the master of his servant. If we seek to grow closer to G-d, then in this episode we are shown how best to achieve divine intervention and blessing. If we truly put G-d first, and dedicate our lives to his service, then G-d reciprocates and connects and answers us.

[an @iwe, @eliyahuasinter and @blessedblacksmith work]

P.S. In the Torah, the servant is not named. I think this is not to diminish his status, but instead to elevate it: he is the archetype of how a servant can and should please his master – how we can – and should – find favor in the eyes of our Creator. Ultimately, our lives are not about us. They are about what we choose to do.

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  1. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald

    I was recently watching a video about what many people believe is Jacob’s Well near Shecem. One thing that impressed me is that the water level is 150 feet down.  The video shows modern shepherds drawing water from hand dug wells, drawing the buckets up by rope. It’s a lot of work.

    Offering to draw water for someone else’s livestock takes, at the least, a significant amount of exertion.  Rebekah’s offer was very generous!

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