Did you ever pray for something for a long time and it didn’t happen? Did you give up? Did you keep on praying? Can our prayers really make a difference?
Our sages tell us Moses pleaded and prayed numerous times to Gd to allow him to enter the Promised Land. He didn’t ask to lead the people into the land, just to experience it—to reach the goal of his life’s work, especially after 40 long years as leader of the Jewish people and then he could die content. But it was not to be.
The sages tell us he prayed 515 times, corresponding to the gematria, the numerology of the word that begins today’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan (And I [Moses] prayed: vav, alef, taf, chet, nun, nun/6 +1 + 400 + 8 + 50 + 50 = 515). It’s not surprising that 515 is also the gematria of tefila (prayer: taf, fey, lamed, hey/400 + 80 + 30 + 5 = 515). Nonetheless, Gd still refused to allow Moses to enter. In fact, Moses tells us (Deut. 3:26) Gd said to him, “Enough! Do not speak to Me any more about this!”
HaRav Reuven Katz, the father of my Rebbe, Rav Michael Katz, z”l, in his classic work Dudaei Reuven asks: “Why was it necessary for Gd to command Moses not to pray anymore? Just as Gd didn’t heed the 1st 515 requests, Gd could have simply continued to refuse all future requests.”
HaRav Katz answers that the Torah teaches us a major principle concerning the efficacy of prayer. Gd forbade Moses to continue because if he had prayed just one more time, Gd would have had to relent. Such is the power of prayer! Since it was better for the people to have Joshua as their new leader taking them into the land without Moses’ presence diminishing his leadership, Gd’s answer was, “No!”
According to the Talmud (Brachot 10a) the prophet Isaiah had warned King Hezekiah he would soon die. The king dismissed him saying, “I have learned from the house of my father’s father (King David) that even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not stop praying to Gd for mercy!” Hezekiah then prayed with all his heart and Gd granted him 15 more years to live. It seems prayer is stronger than even prophecy.
Do your prayers seem to be landing on deaf ears, giving you the feeling when you’re praying that you’re talking to a wall? Could it be because your prayers are perfunctory? You may recite the proper words at the proper time, but with how much feeling? Do you really mean the words while you’re saying them? King David teaches in the Ashrey prayer (Psalm 145:18): Karov Hashem l’chol korav (Gd is near to all who call upon Him) l’chol asher yikra-uhu v’emet (to all who call upon Him in truth). Gd can be close to us, but we must make the call—not just by reciting the proper words, but “in truth,” by pouring out our hearts.
But what if you prayed again and again with all your heart and soul and nothing happened? How many of us have prayed that someone who was ill might live and then he or she died? There’s a story of a little girl who cried the familiar lament:
“I prayed that my grandmother should get all better and she died. How could Gd be so cruel?”
Wisely her mother responded: “There are few deaths, thank Gd, where there is no one to pray for the one who is dying. Do you suppose that the gift of prayer was given to us in order that one may never die? Do you think Gd intended that we live on in growing infirmity, till at last we would pray for death to save ourselves from despair? Only Gd knows how to answer. Gd knows when to say, ‘No.’”
“I see,” the skeptic might say. “If she gets better it is Gd helping her, and if she dies it is Gd saying, ‘No.’ How convenient!”
I would say to the skeptic, “Yes, to a certain extent this is correct. Our sincere prayers from the depths of our hearts do have a profound influence upon Gd’s decrees, but sometimes it’s time for someone to die, even though we may feel he/she has died before his/her time. Gd doesn’t always give us what we ask for. He gives us what we need! Sometimes Gd’s answer must be, ‘No!’”
A prayer may seem to go unanswered because silence may actually be the answer. A person, in the depth of his being, knows the part he/she must play in bringing about change, even though this may be difficult, dangerous or scary. It may mean the uncovering of a strength or an ability you never realized you had. The answer may be that for your prayer to be answered, you now need to depend, not only upon Gd, but upon yourself as well.
Ok, we can understand how God sometimes must be silent or answer our prayers by saying, “No.” But how do we get to the state of “Yes!”—the state where Gd answers our prayers by giving us what we prayed for?
King David tells us the secret in the next verse in the Ashrey prayer: R’tzon y’reyav yaaseh (He will do the will of those who are in awe of Him), v’et shav’atam yishma v’yoshi-eym (and He will hear their cries and will save them). Be in awe of Gd—especially in your prayers. Align your intention with His—resolve in your prayers to do Gd’s will—and He will align His intentions with yours—He will resolve to do your will. As it says in Pirke Avot (2:4) “Make your will like Gd’s will, so that Gd will make your will like His will.”
Deep prayer is crucial in getting to the state of “Yes.” Deep prayer has the power to change us, to transform us so much that even if Gd decreed we should be ill…because of our prayers we might become a better person and no longer be the same person for whom that illness was prescribed, and then we can then begin to heal. And so the Talmud (Brachot 5a) advises that when we become ill we should search our lives to see if we ought to change our ways and ask forgiveness. This is part of the process of deep prayer. Also, when illness or misfortune strikes, we need to ask Gd to help us understand the lesson we need to learn from what life has thrown at us. Once we learn the lesson, there is no further need for the distress.
Having said all this, we should be mindful of one more crucial element to getting what we ask for: we must not become too attached to the outcome. Once we pray to Gd and ask for what we want, we must, as the 12-step recovery slogan puts it, “Let go and let Gd.” How many of us know of a couple who couldn’t conceive a child and after many years of doctors and treatments finally decided to adopt? Then, not too long after the adoption, the woman became pregnant without any treatments. They simply let go and let Gd. This is a great spiritual truth: Do what you can to help your situation, pray to Gd for help with all your heart, and then just let it go, give it to Gd to work out—you’ve done your part.
Letting go and letting Gd is liberating. Understanding that although we don’t know why this or that is happening to us, or how we’re going to get out of the situation we’re in, or how we’re going to get better, or how we’re going to stop drinking or drugging or smoking…but Gd knows.
It may sound crazy to say this but I’ll say it anyway: forget about worrying! I know this is difficult—after all we’re Jews! But understand it’s not up to you to come up with all the answers; you just have to let Gd in and listen for the solutions He will provide. If you worry about how you’ll do it, or how you’ll have the strength to manage, you’ve got things completely backwards! You don’t have the strength or the knowledge, but Gd does!
So don’t become attached to the outcome because sometimes Gd has something else in mind for us. Accept what Gd has in store for you. Put your trust in Him, listen to His message and feel His strength as he shows you the path. As you let go and trust Gd, everything is transformed—yes, everything—into a blessing. Gd continuously makes dark places light, rough places smooth, crooked places straight and empty places full. He does this for everything—including you! You just have to let go and let Gd.
My friends, we in Shaarei Shamayim prayed for 14 years to find and secure our own home. Every time we got close it just fell apart. We didn’t know why. We were often disappointed and frustrated. We just had faith that Gd had His reasons and so we kept on praying. I figure we prayed more than Moses’ 515 times since it’s been more than 700 weeks since our congregation began and I have prayed for it 3 times a day! And now we are just a short few weeks away from closing on our new home. It wasn’t the home we 1st envisioned but it will be a wonderful home.
I conclude by asking again: Can our prayers really make a difference? You better believe it! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis