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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. Just like the body needs three meals a day to sustain it, so does the soul need three prayers every day. 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 Kohein Gadol to counteract the prayers of simple travellers. The prayers of murderers endangered the life of the Kohein Gadol. Scientists have started to realize the power of prayer. Not one prayer is lost or in vain. We have to try to be as sincere in our daily prayers as we were on Yom Kippur.
Just a few weeks ago, most Jews worldwide 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 these people would think that they were all righteous, repentant people totally committed to pursue a new year of mitzvah observance. However, the Dubno Maggid 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 made an extravagant wedding feast to celebrate the marriage of his daughter. The whole town was invited. All the guests dressed beautifully and were adorned with the finest jewellery. A visitor from out of town, attending the wedding, got the impression that every member of this community must be very rich. However, as the visitor stayed for a little while, he noticed that many of the guests rushed to return the outfits and jewellery they had rented or borrowed for this special occasion. At the celebration, the visitor could not tell who was rich and who was not. Everyone looked the same. It was only during the following days that the truth emerged. Thus, says the Dubno Maggid, only after Yom Kippur, when people take up their regular routines, can we distinguish the true penitent from the others. Already at the evening prayer after the end of the Yom Kippur service, one can notice a difference. A week or two after Yom Kippur, it can be difficult to believe that these are the same people one saw on that most holy of days. Unfortunately, it seems like many have given back the conduct that they "borrowed" or "rented" for the day.
The soul needs prayer
People that only 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 a day to sustain it, so does the soul need three prayers every day (Kuzari 3:5).
Noah failed to pray
In this week's parasha, we read about the great flood at the time of Noah. The prophet Isaiah refers to the flood as the "waters of Noah" (54:9). Our sages explain that this is because Noah was somewhat blamed for the flood, since he did not pray for his generation, when G'd notified him what He was about to do (Zohar 1:67). This teaches that prayer is more than just a privilege. Although the obligation to pray three times a day had not been instituted yet, G'd expected Noah to understand on his own to pray in order to avert the forthcoming calamity (see last week's Torah Attitude how Adam prayed for rain so that everything would grow). Just like a person who can stop a certain act is considered responsible for that act, if he does not stop it (see Shabbat 54b), in the same way a person is responsible, if he fails to pray to stop or avert a situation.
Everyone is equal
The Midrash Rabba teaches that every person has the ability to pray and make requests of G'd (Beshalach 21:4). G'd is different than human beings. Most people will not listen as carefully to the request of a pauper and give it the same consideration, as if an affluent person approaches the same person. G'd, on the other hand, listens carefully to everyone's requests. We are all equal in front of G'd. The Midrash points out that the same expression is used in Tehillim when referring to the prayer of Moses (Tehillim 90) as when referring to the prayer of the poor person (Tehillim 102). This, says the Midrash, proves that everyone is equal before G'd. The Midrash concludes that before the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people cried out to G'd. When Moses also started to pray, G'd said to Moses, My children already prayed and I heard their prayers, so why are you praying? (Shemos 14:15). G'd listens to everyone's prayers, as long as they are sincere.
Rabbi Simcha Zisel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, points out that the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) would say a short prayer upon entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The Talmud relates that a significant part of this prayer was to entreat G'd not to listen to the travellers' prayers in regards to rain. These people would sometime pray that it should not rain, at the time when everybody else needed rain. Who were these travellers that it was necessary for the holiest person standing on the holiest place on the holiest day to ensure that their prayers should not interfere with the needs of the rest of the world? They could be the simplest of people, general wayfarers. However, if they had to stop their travels due to a heavy rainfall, they knew that the only one they could turn to was the Almighty Himself. Their prayer was pure and sincere. Such prayer would be very powerful, and it was necessary to intervene on the highest level to stop its effect.
The prayers of murderers
On a similar note, says the Alter of Kelm, we find a very interesting Mishna in the Talmud (Makkos 11a). The Mishna teaches 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 Kohein Gadol can the murderer return home (Ibid 28). Says the Mishna: "Therefore, the mothers of the Kohanim Gadolim 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 Kohein Gadol is considered somewhat guilty. Just like Noah should have prayed for his generation, so the Kohein Gadol should have prayed that no one should get killed. Therefore, the life of the Kohein Gadol was in real danger. On the other hand, we see the power of the prayer even of murderers who were careless in their conduct and killed someone. These people knew that the only way to get back home would be if the Kohein Gadol died. Since they might pray to G'd with a clear realization that only He could help them, and let the Kohein Gadol die, their prayers had real power. Again, we see that no one is beyond the power of prayer.
It is interesting to note that modern-day scientists have started to realize the power of prayer. In recent years, several medical journals have published amazing results from scientific studies. They show that 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 worldwide live in fear and are insecure due to war and other dangers. Although every person has the power to communicate to G'd and pray, the Jewish people, as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have special powers to pray. Our Patriarchs instituted and our sages established specific times when to pray and what to pray. However, every prayer makes a difference, whether we use an established prayer book, or say a personal prayer. It is more effective if we pray at the synagogue with a minyan, but one can pray anywhere. We can pray in Hebrew or in any language that we feel comfortable with. Our sages explain that this is the deeper meaning of Isaac's statement when he said before he blessed Jacob (Bereishis 27:22): "The voice is the voice of Jacob."
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 have the power to pray to the One Who has the ability 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 may 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 thousand years for the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple. We continue to do so, until we will accomplish 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 is the right time to satisfy our requests.
Noah and the flood
In this week's parasha, Noah eventually started to pray. Rashi says that it was the prayer of Noah that stopped the flood (Bereishis 8:1), and G'd restored life to the earth again. Who knows how much life could have been saved if Noah had only discovered the power of power sooner? We too have the privilege and obligation to pray. The Talmud (Berachot 6b) bemoans that prayer, which is so exalted, is taken so lightly by people. On Yom Kippur, many cried their hearts out to our merciful Father in Heaven. However, that is not enough. 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".
Praying for peace
The sooner we make sincere prayer part of our daily routine, the better chance we have that our prayers will help to restore the wonderful blessings that G'd wishes to shower upon us. The situation in Israel is alarming and we are longing for peace there, 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 Amidah 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.
Wishing you and all the Jewish people a happy year filled with Divine protection and blessings for all our needs. A gemar vechatima Tova.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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