As I sit down to write this column, my thoughts keep coming back to those missing in the building collapse in South Surfside (just a few blocks from my home) and their families, many of whom I know personally.
If I could, I would write an article about coping with tragedy, how Hashem is with us even in our darkest moments, and how there is Divine blessing hidden even in the most horrific tragedies.
Unfortunately, I do not have the words or the intellect to explain these concepts. As such, I will attempt to write about the power of prayer in the hope that our prayers will accomplish unimaginable miracles.
The Torah portion of Balak contains references to our prayers and synagogues. For example:
“Behold, a people that rises like a lioness and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain (Numbers 23:24).” Rashi says that “rising like a lioness” refers to the various mitzvot we do every morning such as donning the Tallit and Tefillin and reading the Shema. “It does not lie down until it eats its prey” refers to reciting the Shema on one’s bed and entrusting one’s spirit to the Hand of the Omnipresent which destroys the negative forces of this world.
“מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” The Seforno and Ohr HaChaim explain that the “tents” are referring to the houses of study (Batei Midrash) as in the expression “the tents of Torah” while the “dwelling places” are referring to the synagogues (Batei Knesset) since these cause G-d to “dwell” among us. These holy places bring blessing, eternity, and G-dliness to the entire Jewish people.
As such, this article will discuss the power of prayer. It is based on the Sefer Avodat HaTefillah (Nahariyah 2006), which is collected from the writings of Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzera
Prayers Are Not Wasted
When Avraham prayed for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. chapter 18), it seems like his prayers were for nought as he prayed that G-d should save the city if there were ten righteous people there, and in fact there were only eight righteous people, and the cities were destroyed. Yet Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzera explains (page 55) that his prayer was not wasted as it was in the merit of his prayer that Lot was saved (see gen. Chapter 19) and that Lot’s descendant Ruth converted (see the book of Ruth) and was the mother and grandmother of two tzaddikim who completed the line of ten tzaddikim from Peretz (son of Yehudah) to King David. The ten tzaddikim after Yehudah were Peretz, Chetzron, Ram, Aminadav, Nachson, Salma, Boaz, Oved, Yishai, and King David (Divrei HaYamim I 2:5-12). [Ruth was the mother of Oved, grandmother of Yishai, and great-grandmother of King David.]
Teshuvah Removes the Barriers to Prayer
If a person sins, a barrier is created which blocks his prayers from being accepted. When he does teshuvah (repents), that barrier is removed and his prayers can rise to the Almighty unobstructed. Thus, after King David sinned and subsequently did teshuvah, the prophet informed him (Shmuel II, 12:13), “G-d has removed your sin, you will not die.”
The following verse in Tehillim (119:26) can be interpreted accordingly:
דְּרָכַ֣י סִ֖פַּרְתִּי וַֽ֜תַּֽעֲנֵ֗נִי – I have polished my ways (by doing teshuvah), and You (now) answer me (when I pray). [Pages 76 and 77]
How to Pray
One should remove all thoughts that disturb one’s prayers so that one can pray with a complete heart, as the Mishnah says (Avot 2:13), “Do not pray out of obligation but in a manner of supplication, begging for compassion from G-d.” One should pray slowly and recite each word individually, concentrating on the meaning of each word. Such a prayer is very powerful as it unites all of the realms, both physical and spiritual, with the Almighty and draws down Divine sustenance to all of the worlds.
This is alluded to in the following verse (Levit. 2:7-8), וְאִם־מִנְחַ֥ת מַרְחֶ֖שֶׁת קָרְבָּנֶךָ סֹ֥לֶת בַּשֶּׁ֖מֶן תֵּֽעָשֶֽׂה וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֣ אֶת־הַמִּנְחָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר יֵֽעָשֶׂ֛ה מֵאֵ֖לֶּה לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה וְהִקְרִיבָהּ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְהִגִּישָׁ֖הּ אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ. The standard translation is “And if your sacrifice is a meal offering in a deep pot, it shall be made of fine flour with oil. Thus you shall bring the meal offering which shall be made from these types, to the L-rd. And he shall bring it to the kohen, and he shall bring it close to the altar.”
Allegorically, these verses can be interpreted as follows.
: וְאִם־מִנְחַ֥ת מַרְחֶ֖שֶׁת קָרְבָּנֶךָ סֹ֥לֶת בַּשֶּׁ֖מֶן תֵּֽעָשֶֽׂה
If one brings an offering with one’s lips (מַרְחֶ֖שֶׁת refers to murmuring lips) it should be pure, with no adulterating thoughts, and uttered slowly. (סֹ֥לֶת means fine flour and refers to the purity of thought while שֶּׁ֖מֶן , oil, that pours slowly, refers to the fact that one should pray slowly.)
:וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֣ אֶת־הַמִּנְחָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר יֵֽעָשֶׂ֛ה מֵאֵ֖לֶּה לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה וְהִקְרִיבָהּ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְהִגִּישָׁ֖הּ אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ
A prayer uttered with such “ingredients” is worthy of being brought in front of G-d, elevated to the Angel Michael (who is the supernal Kohen) and brought up to the sublime Altar of G-d (pages 80 and 81).
A Great Battle
Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzera writes (page 85 – 86) “At the time of prayer, the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) works especially hard because the times of prayer are auspicious times on High which accomplish great Divine unifications in all of the realms. No other time can be compared to this.
The Yetzer Hara tries with all its might to stop these great accomplishments at all costs. One must therefore strengthen oneself like a lion to concentrate on one’s prayers, remove all other thoughts, and pray slowly while thinking about what one is saying. One should realize that he is in the king’s throne room and should therefore pray with great awe of the Almighty. One who does not pray in this manner is showing that he does not believe that the King is there and is listening to his words. If he would believe this, how could he speak quickly and swallow his words?”
The following verse (Kohelet 4:17) can be interpreted in this vein שְׁמ֣וֹר רַגְלְךָ֗ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר תֵּלֵךְ֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הָֽאֱלֹקִים וְקָר֣וֹב לִשְׁמֹ֔עַ מִתֵּ֥ת הַכְּסִילִ֖ים זָ֑בַח. The standard translation is “Watch your feet when you go to the House of G-d, and be ready to obey rather than offer the sacrifices of fools.”
This can also mean,
שְׁמ֣וֹר רַגְלְךָ֗ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר תֵּלֵךְ֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הָֽאֱלֹקִים – Guard yourself against your evil inclination (רַגְלְךָ֗ can mean “a spy,” alluding to the evil inclination which is like a hidden enemy, when you go to the House of G-d (i.e., the synagogue to pray).
וְקָר֣וֹב לִשְׁמֹ֔עַ – G-d is very close to us at this time and is accessible to hear our prayers.
מִתֵּ֥ת הַכְּסִילִ֖ים זָ֑בַח – Do not be like a fool who offers sacrifices (prayers) by rote and without meaning.
The next verse (ibid 5:1) says, אַל־תְּבַהֵ֨ל עַל־פִּ֜יךָ וְלִבְּךָ֧ אַל־יְמַהֵ֛ר לְהוֹצִ֥יא דָבָ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלִֹקִים כִּ֣י הָֽאֱלִֹקִים בַּשָּׁמַ֨יִם֙ וְאַתָּ֣ה עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ עַֽל־כֵּ֛ן יִֽהְי֥וּ דְבָרֶ֖יךָ מְעַטִּֽים.
The standard translation is “Be not rash with your mouth, and let your heart not be hasty to utter a word before G-d, for G-d is in Heaven, and you are on the earth; therefore, let your words be few.”
Continuing with the above understanding, this verse can be interpreted as follows:
אַל־תְּבַהֵ֨ל עַל־פִּ֜יךָ וְלִבְּךָ֧ אַל־יְמַהֵ֛ר לְהוֹצִ֥יא דָבָ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלִֹקִים – Do not speak quickly when in front of G-d (in prayer).
כִּ֣י הָֽאֱלִֹקִים בַּשָּׁמַ֨יִם֙ וְאַתָּ֣ה עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ – G-d in Heaven placed us on this Earth so that we can connect the entire Earth to Him through prayer.
עַֽל־כֵּ֛ן יִֽהְי֥וּ דְבָרֶ֖יךָ מְעַטִּֽים – Your words of prayer should therefore be few, i.e., uttered slowly and one word at a time.
One should pray with emotion and tears because while all of the gates of heaven may be closed, the gates of tears are never closed (Bava Metziah 59a). Even if a person is not worthy to have his prayers answered, if he prays with tears, the Almighty G-d is filled with mercy and accepts his prayers.
The following verse alludes to this (Levit. 2:13): וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָֽתְךָ֘ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒. The standard translation of this verse is “And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt.” But the verse can also mean “All of your sacrificial prayers (מִנְחָֽתְךָ֘ refers to prayers) should be salted by one’s tears.
May G-d answer the tearful prayers of His people and deliver us with miracles and compassion.
Wishing you a Shabbat of Peace