The Power of Torah and Tefillah
הרב גבריאל סרף
The Torah Protects and Saves us
These are well-known words about the power of Torah as an atonement and salvation from every plague and disease. The Gemara in Masechet Rosh HaShana (18a) says:
"Rav Shmuel Bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Where do we see that a verdict which is passed with a vow is never rescinded? As it says "Therefore I have vowed to the House of Eli, that their sin will never be absolved with a sacrifice or an offering" (Shmuel A 3:14). Rava said: it will not be absolved with a sacrifice or an offering, but it can be absolved with Torah. Abayeii said: it will not be absolved with a sacrifice or an offering, but it can be absolved with Torah and gemilut chasadim.
Additionally, the Midrash Sifri of the Aggadta on Esther (parsha alef) says: "When the king's heart was joyous with wine – when G-d's heart was joyous with the wine of Torah." What does this midrash mean?
The Alsheich HaKadosh (Yirmiyahu 9:11) raises an apparent contradiction between two Talmudic passages about the reason for the destruction of the First Temple:
The sugia in Yoma (9b) states: The First Temple was destroyed because of the three severe sins (idol worship, murder and adultery), while the Gemara in Nedarim (80a) cites the verse 'Why was the land lost (destroyed)...because they abandoned my Torah' (Yirmiyahu 9:11-12). The Gemara interprets this: "Because they didn't bless over the Torah before beginning (to learn)."
The Alshiech explains this with a parable:
A king had a musician and took great pleasure in his music. When the king was told that this man assaulted someone, he didn't rebuke him about this, and soon afterwards they told him that he killed a man and the king didn't do anything to him. And one day they told him that someone cut his musician's hand off. Then the king commanded to hang him from a tree. The king's servants saw this in amazement, and asked him: When he committed evil, didn't you forgive his crime? And only when he became a victim you commanded to hang him? The king answered: I never forgot all the evil he did, but I didn't punish him as long as I was enjoying his music. But now that he will no longer play for me because his hand is gone, I remembered all his evil and hanged him on a tree.
And the meaning of the parable is: The Temple was destroyed because of three severe sins, but as long as Am Israel loved the Torah,1 the sweetness of the Torah was pleasant before G-d, and was the reason that G-d was patient and seemingly 'forgot' about their severe sins. "But when he (Am Israel) abandoned the Torah, and the pleasure was gone, then He remembered all his evil" [the Alshiech's wording].2
From here we can say that this is the meaning of the Midrash: "When the king's heart was joyous with wine – with the wine of Torah." It is known that wine helps people forget their troubles, as it says (Mishlei 31:6) "Give the despairing liquor, and wine to the bitter hearts." The wine of Torah, the melody of the Torah, is what causes G-d to 'forget' the sins. Therefore, even at a time of emergency like this, when we are not physically in the Yeshiva, each one of us remains connected with the Torah and the Yeshiva while we are home. Additionally, when every one of us is alone, this is the perfect time for Cheshbon Nefesh; each and every one has the opportunity to think about what he needs to improve in his life and in his Torah.
- And the words of the Ran, in the name of Rabbeinu Yonah in Megillat Setarim are well-known: that admittedly they learned Torah, but "the Torah wasn't important enough in their eyes for them to make a blessing over it, since they weren't learning it for its own sake (lishmah) and as a result they regarded the blessing with contempt. And this is what is meant by 'they didn't go according to it [the Torah]' (Yirmiyahu 9:12): they didn't go according to it with kavanah, and lishmah.
- Similarly the Yerushalmi (Hagigah 1,7) says "G-d waived idol worship, adultery and murder. But contempt for the Torah He didn't waive.
Tefillah from the Depths of the Heart
Besides strengthening Torah learning, there is a need to discuss chizuk in Tefillah. Everyone feels the sense of danger in his heart, because the situation is liable to get out of control, G-d forbid. Here is the place for Tefillah – as believers in Hashem’s protection, we understand that our strength is in our mouths, in our Torah learning and in our prayers.
In Parshat Vayeitze, when Rachel said to Yaakov Avinu: "Bring me sons, and if not I will die" (Bereshis 30:1) Yaakov answers: "Am I in the place of G-d, who has prevented you from having offspring?" Chazal explained this: "He prevented you but not me." G-d turned to him and said "That is the way one answers the distraught? By your life, your sons will bow down to her son" (Bershis Rabbah, 71,7). Here was planted the root of the misfortune of the selling of Yosef.
On the face of it, we are astonished at Yaakov Avinu. How is it possible that he answered Rachel in this way?
We can explain this in light of the Malbim's words on the beginning of Sefer Shmuel Alef, (1:1-11) where the familiar story of Elkana and his family is told:
And this man came up from his city every year to supplicate and sacrifice to G-d in Shiloh…and the day came and Elkana sacrificed and gave a portion to Penina his wife and to each of her sons and daughters. And to Hannah he gave an extra portion because he loved Hannah and G-d closed her womb. And her rival provoked her and made her angry…and so he would do every year when she went up to the House of G-d…and Elkana her husband said to her: Hannah, why do you cry? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not as good for you like ten sons? And Hannah got up after eating in Shiloh…and her soul was bitter and she prayed to G-d and cried profusely. And she made a vow and said: G-d of Hosts, if you see the affliction of your maidservant, and remembered me and will not forget your maidservant, and will give your maidservant a man-child, then I will give him to G-d all the days of his life and no razor will touch his head.
The Malbim asks: why did Hannah surpass herself this year and cry so much, more than on any other year?
And he explains: since that year Elkana said to her "Why do you cry…am I not good for you like ten sons" – this sentence is what broke her spirit. Beforehand, Hannah relied on the fact that her husband the tzaddik, Elkana, was certainly praying for her, and by virtue of his prayers she would be answered. Certainly she also prayed, but apparently up to that point her prayers weren't fully from the depths of her heart. Only when Hannah heard the words: "why do you cry…am I not good for you" which meant: you will have to resign yourself to the fact that you won't have children, she understood – "If I will not do for myself, who will do for me?"; if she didn't pour out her heart, no one else would save her.
In this spirit, Rabbi Itzaleh from Volozhin expalains the verse in Parshat Shemot: "And it was in those many days, that the king of Egypt died and B'nei Israel sighed because of the work, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to G-d because of the work" (Shemot 2:23). Obviously, Israel cried out and prayed during the entire period of the bondage, so what happened at this moment?
Rabbi Itzaleh explains that until then the prayers were not entirely from the depths of their hearts since they expected that, in the way of the world, when the king of Egypt will die, his decrees would be annulled. Only when the king died, and the decrees continued and even became more severe, the cry burst out from the depths of their hearts. This prayer is what opened the gates of Heaven - "and their cry ascended to G-d."
In the same way, we can understand the Gemara in Masechet Megillah (15b) "The Rabbis asked, why did Esther invite Haman (to the wine-feast)? Rabbi Nachman said: in order that the Jews would not say "we have a sister in the king's house" and not make a full effort to attain (G-d's) mercy."
Esther understood that without the prayers of Am Israel, the decree would not be annulled. Even after three days of fasting and lamentation, the prayer was still not from the depths of the heart. Am Israel relied on having "a sister in the king's house" and were sure that she would see to it that the decree would be cancelled. Therefore, Esther could not complacently rely on these prayers, so she invited Haman in order that Am Israel would lose faith in her, and will turn to G-d knowing that He alone saves and redeems.
From this we can understand Yaakov's behavior toward Rachel. Yaakov understood that Rachel relied on him, and her prayers weren't coming fully from the depths of her heart. Because of this he said to her: "He prevented you and not me" – to make it seem that this is Rachel's private affair, and then she knew she had no choice besides praying for herself [see the Ramban there].
This is the basis of prayer: we know that there are indeed many dedicated people doing all they can by worldly means to prevent the spread of the pandemic and to save those who are infected, but when we come before The King, we must pray from the depths of our hearts and understand that "we have no one to lean (rely) upon except on Our Father in Heaven" and know that everything depends on Him. Of course, this doesn't exempt us from making our effort and from adhering to the necessary guidelines and distance-keeping, but we must internalize the fact that ultimately everything depends upon G-d’s mercy, on our prayers and on our repentance.
Nothing stands in the way of Tefillah
At the end of Parshat Haazinu (Devarim 32:48-49): And G-d spoke to Moshe on that very day and said: Ascend this mount of Abarim, Mount Nevo which is in the land of Moav and opposite Yericho, and see the land of Canaan which I am giving to B'nei Israel as an inheritance." Rashi wrote:
In three places the Torah uses the expression 'on that very day.' Regarding Noach (Bereshis 7:13): 'On that very day Noach entered etc.', in full sight of the light of day, since the people of his generation swore in the name of such-and-such: if we sense him (about to enter) we won't let him enter the ark, and not only that, but we will take hammers and axes and tear the ark apart. G-d said: I will bring him in at midday, and whoever has the power to protest, let him come and protest.
Regarding (the exodus from) Egypt: 'On that very day G-d took out etc.' since the Egyptians swore in the name of such-and such: If we sense them (about to leave), we will take swords and (other) weapons and kill them. G-d said: I will take them out at midday, and whoever has the power to protest, let him come and protest.
So here, regarding the death of Moshe: 'On that very day etc' since B'nei Israel swore in the name of such-and-such: if we sense (that Moshe is about to go up the mountain), we won't let him. The man who took us out of Egypt, split the sea for us, brought us down the manna, brought us the quails, brought us up the well and gave us the Torah, we won't allow him (to leave us). G-d said: I will bring him in at midday etc.
And this is incredible: let us say that Noach's generation and the Egyptians had the possibility of physically preventing the entry to the ark and the exodus from Egypt. But regarding the parting the Moshe's soul – isn't this a spiritual thing? So what is the relevance of their saying 'we won't allow him?'
But they actually had a serious thought that they could prevent the passing of Moshe Rabbenu by way of prayer. This is in accordance with the nature G-d established in His world, that prayer can penetrate the Heavens and make a difference. This way they could, so to speak, "force" G-d to accept their prayers. And this is according to the way G-d Himself set up the world.
So it appears from what G-d said to Moshe regarding the sin of the calf: "And now, do not impede Me" (Shemot 32:10) and "let Me alone" (Devarim 9:14). And our sages explained: "Is it possible that Moshe restrained G-d? Still, by the power of Tefillah, it is as if Moshe actually restrained G-d, as Rashi said "Here G-d gave him an opening and disclosed to him that everything depends on him, that if he will pray, He will not obliterate them."
The Kohen Gadol, who prayed for rain on Yom HaKippurim, would say "may the prayers of the travelers on the roads not enter before You" (Yoma 53b). We can see from here that even the prayer of an individual has great power, even to the point that the Kohen Gadol had to pray that this (individual) prayer will not impede the Tefillah of the multitude who need the rain.
We will fortify ourselves in the Emuna that "Everything that The Merciful One does is for the good" and we will pray before Him a pure, unadulterated Tefillah which emanates from the depths of the heart, that He will eradicate this plague from our midst, and will speed our redemption, 'as in the days of our departure from the land of Egypt, He will show us wonders.'
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