Friday, November 11, 2011

Prayer's Purpose

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The prophet Malachi presents a scenario when God-fearing people present their goodness to God, in contrast to the wicked who felt it was worthless to serve God. "At that time, the God-fearing people spoke to one another. God listened and heard, and a scroll of remembrance was written at His command concerning those who fear God and those who meditate on His Name." (Malachi 3:16)
Oddly enough, though the prophet records that a conversation took place, he does not record the conversation.
The Talmud (Brachot 6a) uses this passage as a foundation for the idea that two people who sit and share words of Torah merit to have the Divine Shechinah in their midst. The Gemara asks the question, "Why does the verse add the seemingly superfluous phrase regarding those who 'meditate on His name'? Is it not enough to speak of those who fear God?" The answer is offered by Rav Ashi who declares the teaching that "If a person thought to do a mitzvah and was prevented from doing so, he is given credit for having done the mitzvah."

In his "Darash Moshe", Rabbi Moshe Feinstein uses the background of these texts to ask why God found the need to tell Avraham about S'dom. Even if He knew Avraham would pray, He also knew that Avraham's prayer would have no effect. S'dom was doomed, and not even Avraham could save it. True, his nephew Lot could be saved in Avraham's merit, but this was apparently going to happen even without Avraham's intervention.
Rav Moshe answers that God wanted Avraham's prayers anyway. Avraham's prayers were powerful and needed to be brought to the earth for a purpose – a purpose and design other than to save the doomed city. In other words, Avraham thought to do a good deed, and even though it didn't work out, he received credit anyway.
To bring a similar example from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44b), we are told that when Avraham prayed near the city of Ai (Bereshit 12:8), his prayers did nothing at the time, but prevented Yehoshua's army from being routed in the Battle of Ai (Yehoshua 7:5) around 465 years later.

This is one element of prayer that is beyond all of us. We simply do not know what our prayers do, what merit they serve to advocate for in our world.

When Nachshon Wachsman z"l, the Israeli soldier kidnapped and killed in 1994 (his yarzeit was this past Monday, 11/7, 10 Cheshvan), his family taught a very powerful lesson regarding prayer. "God always listens, but sometimes His answer is 'No.'" In essence, prayers are needed, but we don't always merit to see what purpose our prayers serve.
A few years ago, I was informed of a project taken on by a shul in New Jersey. Different members of the community wrote essays about what prayer means to them, and shared them with the membership. Though seemingly obvious, it turns out that every person brings their own personal experiences into how they view, understand, and relate to the act of "tefillah" – prayer.
A colleague shared one of the essays with me, in which the mother of a child-diagnosed-with-cancer had some very poignant insights. She said, "You don't know what prayer is until you find out your child will not outlive you." Most helpful, she said, was when a person who had gone through a similar trial confided in her saying, "There are times when you will be angry at God. You will not be able to pray. Don't worry. The rest of us will be praying for you."
These are powerful thoughts. It's not just that every individual has the ability to move mountains. It's that we are all in this together, looking out for one another, making a prayer-contribution because somewhere, somehow, it helps all of us. Perhaps in ways we could not even consider or imagine.
Let us make a commitment to consider that as much as the specific words we say may or may not be important, it is the fact that we prayed that is highly significant. Let us remember that not every day is the best of days – we don't always feel right, and we don't always feel it – but others are praying for us. And, of course, sometimes God's answer is "No."
Most of all, let us remind ourselves regularly that we're all in this together. If Avraham could pray, even though in the back of his mind he may have known that S'dom was doomed, how much moreso can we pray when we merely think things are grim and hopeless? Those we pray for are millions of times better than the people of S'dom. And we never have any right to think things are hopeless.
And in the event that our prayers seem to go unanswered, if we can only imagine that our prayers helped (or will help) someone, somewhere, in a way unbeknownst to us, our tefillah experiences will be exponentially more powerful and carry meaning beyond our wildest imagination!

1 comment:

  1. רבינו בחיי בראשית פרשת תולדות פרק כה פסוק כא

    וזהו שדרשו ז"ל: (שיר השירים רבה ב, לד) מפני מה נתעקרו האמהות, מפני שהקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים. ומכאן יש ללמוד עוד כח התפלה שהיא גדולה מאד ואפילו לשנות הטבע. ומטעם זה הזכיר לשון "ויעתר" ולא אמר ויתפלל או ויצעק, ושאר הלשונות, כי הוא מלשון עתר