Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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1 Kislev 5764 - November 26, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Power of Prayer

by R' Yair Spolter

The great gaon and tzaddik Rabbi Akiva Eiger once received a letter requesting that he pray on behalf of a man who was ill. The letter included the man's name as well as his mother's name, and a short note asking that the gaon daven for him. Rabbi Akiva Eiger obliged. He prayed that the sick man should have a full recovery. However, despite Rabbi Akiva Eiger's tefilloh, the illness did not subside.

Shortly afterwards, the man who had written to Rabbi Akiva Eiger received a letter in reply. It read: "Concerning the patient that you asked me to daven for, I see that my prayer was not answered. Perhaps the name you gave me was incorrect."

Rabbi Akiva Eiger was so confident in the power of prayer that he did not entertain the possibility that his tefilloh could have been turned down. The only possible explanation was that there must have been a mistake in the name!

Tefilloh has always been one of Klal Yisroel's most treasured commodities. The strength of the Jewish Nation lies in our mouths, in our close connection to Hashem through prayer. In Parshas Toldos we learn how the power of prayer made the very inception of the Jewish people possible.

The parsha begins by relating that Yitzchok Ovinu and his wife Rivka were unable to have children. They implored Hashem to act with Divine mercy and grant them a child. Hashem heard their prayers and Rivka conceived.

When the Torah describes Yitzchok Ovinu's prayer, it uses the word "vaye'etar." Rashi explains that this word comes from the root ayin-tov-reish, which means abundance. Thus, "Vaye'etar Yitzchok leHashem" means "and Yitzchok prayed abundantly to Hashem." This seems to imply that Yitzchok was davening for a long period of time, as did his father Avrohom before meriting the birth of Yitzchok. Perhaps months, even years, passed until his prayers were answered.

When Moshe Rabbenu prayed for 40 days on Har Sinai, the Torah does not use the word "vaye'etar." Nor do we find this term used in reference to the 515 prayers that Moshe Rabbenu prayed when imploring the Ribono Shel Olom to allow him to enter Eretz Yisroel.

It seems that there was a unique aspect of persistence in Yitzchok's prayer. He might have prayed many times over a long span of time before being blessed with a child. Rashi informs us, however, that this was not the case. He makes the following calculation: Yitzchok was 40 years old when he married Rivka (v.20). It was another ten years until Rivka reached the age of childbearing. Subsequently, Yitzchok waited 10 more years to ascertain that Rivka was actually physically incapable of conceiving. It was only then, at the age of 60, that Yitzchok began to pray to Hashem for a child (Rashi v.26). When Yaakov and Eisov were born, the Torah tells us that Yitzchok Ovinu was 60 years old. This means that his prayers were answered almost immediately. If so, why does the Torah tell us that Yitzchok prayed exceedingly? In what way was his tefilloh considered abundant?

Perhaps the answer to this mystery lies in a midrash on the very same posuk. The Midrash tells us that the word "vaye'etar" can also be understood to mean "and he dug." With his prayer, Yitzchok Ovinu was hewing out a pipeline to the Heavens.

Chazal explain this with a moshol. The son of a great king once wanted to enter the king's treasury, to take from his riches. Since the door to the treasury was locked and guarded, he began digging a tunnel that would get him in through the floor. As he dug deep into the ground, suddenly the earth before him gave way, as if he had discovered a secret passageway. As the debris cleared from the air, he looked up and saw his father the king, holding a shovel in his hand!

Realizing his son's plan, the king had dug his own tunnel through the floor of the treasury. He met his son along the way, bringing him the riches that he sought.

"Vaye'etar Yitzchok leHashem" -- Yitzchok dug with his prayers, "Vayei'oseir lo Hashem" -- and Hashem dug from His end, allowing Yitzchok's prayers to reach the Heavens and be answered.

This beautiful moshol gives us an insight into Hashem's desires to hear our tefillos, and His eagerness to answer them. But perhaps we can learn from it another point as well.

The gemora (Brochos 32a) tells us that if a person davens for something and is not answered, he should daven again. Why is this so? If the prayer didn't do anything the first time, why should the second time be different? Is prayer like a slot machine -- if you don't win the first time try your luck again? How does this work?

This gemora is teaching us a very important concept, which is one of the foundations of understanding tefilloh. Every prayer does something. Every prayer has an effect, whether we see it or not. Every prayer is listened to by Hashem, Who gives us His direct attention.

Sometimes the gates of Heaven are open and the prayer reaches its destination right away, bringing immediate blessing and good fortune. Other times, the first prayer doesn't do the whole job. Like digging a tunnel, it may take days, weeks, or even years of persistence.

But, the gemora is telling us, don't give up. Pray again. Each and every prayer -- each and every word of each and every prayer -- has a definite effect.

Perhaps this concept can help us understand why Chazal described Yitzchok's tefilloh as tunnel-digging. When someone sets out to dig a tunnel, he doesn't expect to immediately reach the other end. Nevertheless, he doesn't disregard the first strokes as being unimportant or useless. He realizes that everything he does is bringing him closer to his destination.

When someone stops davening after not getting immediate results it is because he doesn't have an appreciation for the power of prayer. Prayer, for him, is a last resort. He's willing to "give it a try." "What have I got to lose?" But if he doesn't get what he asked for, he feels that he's wasted his time and he gives up.

The persistent davener, on the other hand, exhibits his strong trust and reliance on the power of prayer. He doesn't give up after one time or two, because he knows that his prayers are having an effect. Knowing that every word is being listened to, he pulls out his shovel, ready to go to work.

The persistent davener differs from the one-time davener not only in the number of times that he davens, but in how he davens. From the very onset his tefilloh is different, injected with the unyielding spirit with which he beseeches Hashem. This style of prayer is called "'itur," which means to pray persistently, not only in a quantitative sense but also in a qualitative sense. It means to pray with the fervent belief that tefilloh really works. And it works miracles.

When Yitzchok Ovinu began davening for a child, he faced a situation that was seemingly hopeless. The laws of nature had dictated that he and his wife would remain childless. Their only chance was supernatural intervention. Not only was Rivka's pregnancy a physical impossibility, but in the spiritual sense, as well, they needed a miracle.

As Chazal explained in their moshol, the king's treasury was locked and guarded. This refers to the fact that Hashem's attribute of Justice (middas hadin) made it impossible for the wicked Eisov to be conceived. Despite the overwhelming odds against him, Yitzchok picked up his shovel and began to pray. If the front door to the treasury was locked, he would find another way in. He was armed with the power of prayer. He davened with a feeling of complete trust and reliance that Hashem hears and answers prayer. He was determined, and he would have davened as many times as it would take. But as soon as he began, Hashem responded -- "Vayei'oseir lo Hashem." The Almighty King, shovel in hand, came to meet His son, bringing him the riches that he desired.

Why did the Torah use the term "'itur," if Yitzchok Ovinu did not actually pray for a long period of time?

Because the power of tefilloh with bitochon lies not only in the quantity but also in the quality of such a prayer. Yitzchok's prayer was certainly a cry of "'itur." And he would have continued to pray for as long as it would take. He simply didn't have a chance to repeat his request. As soon as he began to dig, he was met by the King, who was eager to hear and to answer his tefilloh.

The importance of prayer in our lives cannot be overestimated. With all of life's challenges, responsibilities, and surprises, the time we spend connecting to the Ribono Shel Olom is nothing short of our lifeline. But for some, davening can become monotonous and uninspiring. It is hard to appreciate the reality of prayer, because we cannot sense its potency.

Here the Torah is telling us loud and clear -- tefilloh really works! Not sometimes, but always. Not a little, but a lot.

If we pause for a moment before davening and think about this, we can become inspired to daven with greater concentration and confidence. If we think about the shovel, if we feel Hashem listening to our words, then the minutes we spend in prayer will surely become the most inspiring part of our day. If we can have the confidence in the power of tefilloh that Rabbi Akiva Eiger had, then we can be as confident as he was that our tefillos will be answered.

Questions for Discussion

* What other advantages might there be to davening even when the tefillos go unanswered?

* Is there any situation in which one should not daven?

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