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Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: The power of prayer


Looks can be deceiving. Only after Yom Kippur can we distinguish the true penitent from the others. Just like the body needs three meals daily to sustain it, so does the soul crave the three expressions of prayer on a daily basis. Isaiah refers to the flood as the "waters of Noah". The prayer of Noah stopped the flood. Everyone is equal in front of G'd. It was necessary for the High Priest to counteract the prayers of travellers. The prayers of killers placed the life of the High Priest in real danger. Scientists have started to realize the power of prayer. Not one prayer is lost or in vain. We have to try to be sincere in our daily prayers as we were on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur

Just a few weeks ago, most Jews the world over stopped their daily routines to participate in the Yom Kippur service. Many were deeply emerged in prayer and serious thoughts on this awesome day. A passer-by observing an assembly for a few moments would think that all who participated were righteous, repentant people totally committed to pursue a new year of mitzvah observance. The Dubno Maggid, however, points out that looks can be deceiving, as is apparent from the following parable.

Everyone looked the same

An extremely affluent person in a certain town was making an extravagant wedding feast to celebrate the marriage of his daughter. The whole town was invited. All the guests were dressed in beautiful clothing and adorned with the finest jewellery. A visitor from out of town attending the wedding was under the impression that every member of this community was very rich based on their attire. However, as the visitor stayed for a day or two after the wedding, he noticed that many of the guests were rushing to return the outfits and jewellery that were rented or borrowed for this special occasion. During the celebration, the visitor could not tell who was rich and who was not. Everyone looked the same. It was only in the days following that the truth emerged. Thus, says the Dubno Maggid, only after Yom Kippur, when people return to their regular routines and to business as usual can we distinguish the true penitent from the others. Already at the evening prayer after Neilah, the end of the Yom Kippur service, one can notice a difference, and even more so a week or two after Yom Kippur; it can be difficult to believe that this is the same people one saw on that most holy of days. Many have given back the conduct and attitudes that were "borrowed" or "rented" for the day.

The soul craves prayer

People that only pray and show up in the synagogues on Yom Kippur miss the opportunity and privilege to pray on a daily basis. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari explains that just like the body needs three meals daily to sustain it, so does the soul crave the three expressions of prayer on a daily basis (Kuzari 3:5).

Noah failed to pray

In this week's Torah portion, we read about the great flood. The world at the time of Noah was punished for its misdeeds. The prophet Isaiah refers to the flood as the "waters of Noah" (54:9). Our sages explain that Noah was blamed for not praying for his generation when G'd notified him that He was about to bring the flood (Zohar 1:67). This shows us that prayer is more than a privilege. Although the obligation to pray three times a day had not been instituted yet, Noah was expected to understand on his own his obligation to pray to avert the forthcoming calamity. Noah was a righteous person; however, in some way due to his failure to pray, he was considered responsible for the flood. This teaches us that just like a person who can stop a certain act is considered responsible for that act for not stopping it (see Shabbat 54b), in the same way a person is responsible for failing to pray to stop or avert a situation.

Everyone is equal

The Midrash Rabba teaches that every person has this power to make requests of G'd through prayer (Beshalach 21:4). G'd is different than human beings. If a pauper approaches someone, most people will not listen as carefully to the request and give it the same serious consideration as if an affluent person approaches the same person. G'd, on the other hand, listens carefully to all requests. Everyone is equal in front of G'd. The Midrash continues and points out that the same expression is used in Tehillim when referring to the prayer of Moses (Tehillim 90) as is used when referring to the prayer of the poor person (Tehillim 102). This confirms that everyone is equal before G'd. The Midrash concludes that at the exodus from Egypt the Jews cried out to G'd and Moses also started to pray. Moses was told by G'd, My children prayed and I have already heard their prayers, so why are you praying? (Shemos 14:15). G'd listens to everyone's sincere prayers.

Counteract travellers' prayers

Rabbi Simcha Zisel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, points out that the High Priest would say a short prayer upon entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. A significant part of this prayer was entreating G'd not to listen to the prayer of travellers that it should not rain at the time when the world needs rain. Who were these travellers that it was necessary for the holiest person standing on the holiest place on the holiest day to counteract their prayers so that it should not interfere with the needs of the rest of the world? They could be the simplest of people, general wayfarers, but if they were stopped in their travels due to heavy rainfall they knew that the only one they could turn to, the one to stop the rain, was the Almighty himself. Their prayer would be pure and sincere. Such prayer would be very powerful and it was necessary to intervene on the highest level to stop their effect.

The prayers of killers

On a similar note, says the Alter of Kelm, we find a very interesting Mishna in the Talmud (Makkos 11a). The halacha is that if someone kills unintentionally, he shall flee to one of the specially designated cities of refuge (see Bamidbar 35:9-34). Only after the death of the High Priest can the killer return home (Ibid 28). Says the Mishna: "Therefore, the mothers of the High Priests would provide food and clothing to the refugees so that they did not pray that their sons (the High Priests) should die." From this we learn two lessons. On one hand, the Talmud (Ibid) explains that the High Priest is considered somewhat guilty, as he should have prayed for his generation that such calamities should not happen. Therefore, the life of the High Priest was in real danger. On the other hand, we see the power of the prayer of even killers, who were careless in their conduct and killed others. These people knew that the only way to get back home would be if the High Priest died. Since they might pray to G'd with a clear realization that only He could help them by letting the High Priest die, their prayers had real power. Again, we see that no one is beyond the power of prayer.

Scientific results

It is interesting to note that even scientists have started to realize the power of prayer. Recently, several medical journals have published amazing results from scientific studies. Patients who had people praying for them, even without their knowledge, had a higher recovery rate than patients who had no one praying for them.

Obligated to pray

We live in turbulent times. Millions of people the world over feel insecure about unknown dangers. Although every person has the power to communicate to G'd through prayer, the Jewish people, as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have been blessed with special powers to pray as the chosen people. This is a privilege but with it comes special obligations. We have specific times when to pray and what to pray. However, whether we use an established prayer book or personal expression, whether we pray at the synagogue with a minyon or elsewhere, whether we pray in Hebrew or in a language with which we feel more comfortable, it is all part of our special privilege and obligation to pray. Our sages explain that this was the deeper meaning of Isaac's statement when he blessed Jacob (Bereishis 27:22): The voice is Jacob's voice."

Never give up

We often find ourselves in situations where we feel powerless and wish there was something we could do. Someone close to us is sick or is going through a difficult time with family issues or financial problems. We tend to forget that we are in a position to do something: we can pray to the One who has the real power to help and heal. We can also ask others who may have more merits to include this person in their prayers. Even more, we can undertake to do things that can add to our own merits and thereby be better equipped to pray ourselves. We must realize that we should never give up. On the contrary, we must continue to pray, since the power of prayer is cumulative. Moses prayed to G'd 515 times, begging to be allowed entry into the Promised Land till G'd told him specifically to stop. The Jewish people is praying for almost two thousands years for the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. We continue to do so until we have accomplished what we need. Not one prayer is lost or in vain. G'd listens to everyone, but only He knows what is best for us and when it is the right time to satisfy our requests.

Praying for peace

Noah finally realized his mistake and began to pray. Rashi says that the prayer of Noah stopped the flood (Beresheis 8:1), the waters began to dissipate, and G'd restored life to the earth again. Who knows how much life could have been saved if Noah had only discovered his mistake sooner? We too have the privilege and obligation to pray. On Yom Kippur, we cried our hearts out to our merciful Father in Heaven. The Talmud (Berachot 6b) bemoans that prayer, which is so exalted, is taken so lightly by people. Prayer is something that requires constant strengthening and improvement (ibid. 32b). We have to try to be as sincere in our daily prayers as we were on Yom Kippur. King David says, "G'd is close to all who call upon Him" (Tehillim 145:18). However, there is one condition, as King David continues," to all who call upon Him sincerely". The sooner we make sincere prayer a part of our daily routine, the sooner our prayers will help to restore the wonderful blessings that G'd wishes to shower upon us. We are longing for peace in Israel and in the rest of the world. With our prayer we have the ability to make a difference, and approach the only One who has the power to establish peace once and for ever. As we say at the end of the Amida prayer, "He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all the Jewish people." Then and only then will the world be filled with peace.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel