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4 Elul 5768 - September 4, 2008 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
The Power of Prayer

By HaRav Chaim Eliezer Ben-Zion Bruk zt"l

The gemora says in Brochos 31a: "Rav Hamnuna said: `How many important halochos can be learned from these pesukim describing the actions of Channah!'"

We derive important halochos and significant lessons from Channah's prayer. The Shulchan Oruch brings lehalocho that a person praying has to have the requisite intention, may not raise his voice when praying — as well as other matters — all derived from Channah. There is no doubt that in our prayers we must act as Channah did, and just as Channah was answered, so too will the prayer of anyone davening like Channah surely be answered, for the gemora stresses that important halachos are to be learned from the episode of Channah's prayer.

Let us see what else the gemora learns from Channah's prayer. The gemora says, "`And she made a vow and said, O Hashem Zevokos'...Channah said before HaKodosh Boruch Hu, `Master of the Universe, of all the hosts and hosts that You have created in Your world, is it so hard to give me one son?'" At first glance, we would be justified in taking her request to be for any son, even for a lame or blind one, G-d forbid, because she asked to be given one of the billions of creations in Hashem's enormous world. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the continuation of the gemora: "This may be compared to a king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, `Give me a bite.' No one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the king and said to him, `Your Majesty, out of all the feast which you have made, is it so hard in your eyes to give me one bite?'" We may rest assured that a king's feast will include meat, fish and lots of delicacies, and yet all the poor man asks for is a slice of bread. Similarly, all Channah asks for is a son, no matter what kind.

However, the gemora continues: "`But will give unto Your handmaid a male offspring.' What is meant by `male offspring'? Rav says: A man among men." Tosafos explains this to mean that he will be important enough to be counted amongst men. According to this, Channah was requesting more than the minimum.

Shmuel says, "Offspring that will anoint two men, namely Shaul and Dovid." This is taking Channah's request a stage further. She is requesting not just any child, not just a man as important as all other men, but a son who will become a novi and anoint Shaul, Hashem's Chosen One who, upon becoming king had, according to Chazal, no sins like a one- year old. Afterwards he would anoint Dovid, meshiach Hashem. Rabbi Yochonon says, "Offspring who will be equal to two men, namely Moshe and Aharon, as it says, `Moshe and Aharon among His kohanim and Shmuel among them that call upon His name.'" Channah no longer makes do with some modest request, but increases the intensity and ambitiousness of her entreaties.

Her belabored prayers are answered and her son Shmuel ends up anointing both Shaul and Dovid, and also Shmuel becomes equal in importance to Moshe and Aharon. The whole Jewish people testify to this fact every Friday night: "Moshe and Aharon among His kohanim and Shmuel among them that call upon His name."

These are important guidelines on how to pray. We can and ought to pray not just for ordinary things but for exalted goals, for the highest achievements which mortal beings can attain through genuine heartfelt prayer.

It might be argued that not everybody is on the level of Channah, whom Chazal put on one footing with Soroh Imeinu and Rochel Imeinu, saying that they all conceived on Rosh Hashonoh (Rosh Hashonoh 10b), and that we are on much too low a level to make such requests and have our prayers answered.

Let us consider a gemora in Bovo Metzia (105b ff.) which talks about someone who leases a field, the rent being a certain percentage of the produce. The landowner told the tenant to sow the land with wheat, but he sowed it with barley instead. Most of the fields in the area were affected by disease, including the rented field, and the gemora discusses whether the tenant can say to the landlord, "Had I sown wheat, it would also have been diseased," in which case there is no obligation to compensate the landlord, or whether the landlord can retort: "Had you sown it with wheat the following posuk would have been fulfilled for me: `You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established for you.'" Rashi explains: "The Creator answers our specific requests and at the beginning of this year I did not ask Heaven for success in my barley crop, but my wheat crop." The landlord's claim is accepted lehalocho and the tenant has to pay him the full sum agreed upon. (See Rambam Hilchos Sechirus 8:5 and Shulchan Oruch, Ch.M. 322:2).

There can be no doubt that the gemora is not talking about a case where the landlord is an outstandingly righteous person, of whom it is said that a tzaddik decrees and Hashem listens to him. If this were the case, the gemora and the poskim would have mentioned such a condition. The landlord in question is an ordinary farmer, busy throughout the year with his affairs, with no time to learn Torah and not interested in making time. He prays three times a day, but in a very perfunctory way, and mitzvos are performed without any hiddurim. Nevertheless, he can still say that he asked HaKodosh Boruch Hu for success with his wheat crop and not his barley crop, and the Creator would have fulfilled whatever he would have asked for, and such a claim is accepted lehalocho.

This is an illustration of what we have said about a heartfelt prayer being answered and even changing the natural course of events. A farmer is most aware of how much faith and heartfelt prayer is needed if all his labors are not to be in vain. That is why we assume that his prayer is accepted and the tenant is fully liable.

It may nevertheless be argued that this farmer, with all his failings, is still a religious Jew, neither a tzaddik nor a rosho, and that is why his prayers are answered. But someone less observant who sometimes sins, will not have his prayers answered. There is no doubt that this is incorrect. The Kohen Godol on Yom Kippur, after confessing his own sins and those of his fellow kohanim, makes a short prayer as soon as he comes out of the Kodesh Hakodoshim that the coming year should be full of rain, that the Jewish people should have parnossoh and so on. He then adds another special request that the prayers of travellers asking for rain at a time when the rest of the world needs it, not be accepted. Why does he make this additional request? Has he not just asked Hashem for the coming year to be one that will not lack for rain?

Moreover, let us picture a Kohen Godol, a tzaddik like Aharon HaKohen, Shimon Hatzaddik or Rabbi Yishmoel Kohen Godol, and contrast these with the traveller mentioned in the Kohen Godol's prayer. Not every traveller is of the stature of Rabbi Chanina ben Doso in whose merit the whole world is sustained. The traveller the Kohen Godol has in mind is an ordinary Jew, or even a peddler peddling his wares during the week who does not daven with a minyan, is faced with many trials and sometimes on Fridays towards the evening, finding himself far from the nearest town, will convince himself that it is permitted to travel on after Shabbos has come in, even if there is no danger to life involved. A Kohen Godol, who may be a great tzaddik, after having prayed for rain during the coming year needs to add a special prayer to nullify the effect of the prayer of this peddler!

This is the power of heartfelt prayer! It has immense potential.

When a person knows and feels that besides HaKodosh Boruch Hu there is no one who can help him, his prayer is accepted. The roaming peddler, travelling with his wares, when the sky becomes overcast, having nowhere to stay with himself and his goods about to become drenched, offers a prayer from the depths of his heart which may overpower the ordinary prayer of a Kohen Godol. That is why the Kohen Godol has to add a special prayer to counteract the prayer of travelers regarding rain, even after having already requested rain and parnossoh.

Furthermore, the mishna in Makkos (11a) says that if the Kohen Godol dies, the person who killed inadvertently leaves the city of refuge and returns home. Therefore, mothers of kohanim gedolim would provide food and clothes for them (the murderers), in order that they should not pray for their sons' death. The gemora (ibid.) says that others read in the mishna "in order that they might pray for their sons not to die." We see from this gemora that the lives of the Kohanim Gedolim are truly in danger, and they are dependent on the prayers of inadvertent murderers.

The implications of this mishna are astounding, since it is not only referring to those kohanim gedolim who, during the period of the second Beis Hamikdosh, bought their way into office, but also to totally righteous ones. Is it possible that tzaddikim need the prayers of inadvertent murderers in order not to die or to continue to live?

The difficulty is compounded when we consider the following gemora in Makkos (10b): " `And if a man lie not in wait, but Hashem cause it to come to hand; then I will appoint for you a place to where he may flee'(Shemos 21:13) and, `as the proverb of the ancients says, out of the wicked comes forth wickedness; but my hand shall not be upon you' (Shmuel I 24:13).

"Of whom does the posuk [in Shemos] speak? Of two people who had slain, one in error and one with intent, there being no witnesses in either case. HaKodosh Boruch Hu appoints them both to meet at the same inn; he who had slain with intent sits under the stepladder and he who had slain in error comes down the stepladder, falls and kills him. Thus, he who had slain with intent is slain, while he who had slain in error goes into exile."

The Kohen Godol's life is dependent on the prayers of such a person: someone who has killed twice, albeit inadvertently, but the Torah still calls him a rotzei'ach, a wicked person willing to do evil! The heartfelt prayer of this twofold murderer has a tremendous effect. This person was forced to leave his home environment, and even though beis din is obliged to provide him with whatever he needs to live, it is only to be expected that life in the ir miklat will not be as comfortable as his existence at home. Because of this we fear that he may pray for the Kohen Godol to die, or that he may neglect to pray that he should live, and that is why mothers of kohanim gedolim have to make sure that the rotzei'ach is well provided for, to ensure that their sons not be endangered.

We can see clearly from this example that prayer can be effective regardless of whether the person praying is a great personality asking for sublime things to take place, an ordinary person making an everyday request, or even a criminal, who has to some extent lost his divine image and requests a change in the natural course of events in order to harm illustrious people. If any of these prayers stem from the innermost recesses of the heart, they may be accepted.

[An additional note by Rav Bruk's son, Rav Avraham Moshe: The gemora says in Gittin 57a: "Through a cock and a hen Tur Malka was destroyed... they went and reported to the Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, and he marched against them. There came against them Bar Daroma who was able to jump a mile, and slaughtered them. The Emperor took his crown and placed it on the ground, saying, Master of all the world, may it please you not to deliver me and my kingdom into the hands of one man." The Emperor's prayer was accepted, and Bar Daroma was tripped up by his own utterance and was killed by a snake. We see from this gemora that the power of tefilloh is so great, that even the prayer of a non-Jew who wants to destroy us chas vesholom is accepted if it is a heartfelt prayer.]

During the period we are currently in HaKodosh Boruch Hu is close to us, for it is about this period that the novi proclaims, "Seek Hashem while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near." We must utilize the coming days during which Hashem becomes close to whoever calls Him earnestly to pray to the Creator that the King who desires life may seal our names in the books of the totally righteous, that we may merit a year of success and progress in Torah and yiras Shomayim, blessings, peace and everything good seloh.

This essay is from a talk by HaRav Chaim Eliezer Ben-Zion Bruk zt"l who was menahel of Yeshivas Novardok Beis Yosef, Yerushalayim. His yahrtzeit falls on 14 Tishrei. It was edited by his son, Rav Avraham Moshe Bruk shlita.

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