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The Power of Tefillah

Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Z. Ginzberg in his home.
Photo: Naftoli Goldgrab Photography

There is one topic that I have discussed for decades in my shiurim and derashos; however, recent life experience has now caused me to actually believe it: the awesome power of tefillah. There is an apocryphal story told about Lenin. In his younger years, he and his wife attended a lecture on socialism delivered by Karl Marx. Lenin returned home extremely excited about the lecture and shared his enthusiasm with his family. Concerned about his fervor, his wife said, “The problem with you is that while Marx only speaks about socialism, you actually believe it!”

Permit me to explain.

It was sometime after this past Purim that I began to feel unwell. My doctor suggested that I go to the hospital to take an x-ray of my lungs. A friend who is a Hatzalah volunteer assured me that I would not have to wait long for the x-ray. True to his word, he made arrangements and I was taken for the test right away. I told my wife when I left home that day that I would be back home in a few hours.

With Hashem’s infinite mercy, I did come home—six-and-a-half weeks later.

Apparently, I had contracted Covid-19, and my oxygen levels were falling lower and lower. My condition deteriorated rapidly, and within several days I was intubated and on full life support. The doctors in the ICU gave up on me. They called my wife on erev Pesach and told her to say goodbye to me; my kidneys were failing and the doctors were sure I had only hours to live.

At that point, the role of the doctors ended, and Klal Yisrael’s tefillos took over.

When I was hospitalized, my family and friends sprang into action. Spreading the word through Tehillim chats and WhatsApp groups, they enlisted thousands—perhaps even tens of thousands—of people to daven for my recovery. Despite the doctors’ dire prognosis, or maybe as a result of it, the tefillos continued unabated.

Miraculously, instead of my major organs beginning to fail, which seemed inevitable on that erev Pesach, my kidneys began working again within a few days and my major systems began functioning. Stunned, the non-Jewish doctor in charge of my care remarked to a local askan involved in my case: “There is not much that I believe in, but I now believe in the power of Jewish prayer.”

The doctor now believes it, but do we? Do we really?

How many times do we take a Tehillim in hand to daven for a sick individual? Do we truly believe that it will make a difference?

When mentioning the names of sick individuals during the blessing of Refa’einu in Shemoneh Esrei or when thinking of people in dire financial straits while reciting the blessing of Barech Aleinu, do we genuinely feel that our tefillah has an impact?

I am living proof that it does.

Chazal gave us the secret formula to ensure that our tefillos make a difference. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18a) cites a beraisa in the name of Rav Meir in which he describes two scenarios. One scenario concerns a case where two men were seriously ill with the same sickness. One was eventually cured, and the other was not. The second scenario involves two men who were condemned to die by hanging for a similar crime; one received a reprieve and was saved, and the other was not.

Our tears and our tefillos are never in vain. If they are not used at that time, they will be used at another time or for another purpose.

In both cases, the men davened to Hashem to be saved from this terrible decree. Asks Rav Meir: Why were the tefillos of only one of the men in each case accepted? He answers: In each scenario, only one of the individuals davened a “tefillah sheleimah” (complete tefillah)—which was answered. The incomplete tefillos were not answered.

What is a “tefillah sheleimah”? Rashi says one who prays a complete tefillah is one who has “kavanah.” But Rashi’s explanation only amplifies the question. Is it even conceivable that a person standing on the guillotine with a rope around his neck, or one on his deathbed stricken with a terrible illness will not have the proper kavanah when davening? What else could he possibly be thinking about at such a terrifying time, if not his own prayers for recovery and redemption?

Rav Elya Lopian, zt”l, offers a dazzling explanation. When Rashi defines “tefillah sheleimah” as davening with kavanah, he is not referring to mere concentration on the words of tefillah but to the individual’s emunah, faith in the efficacy of his prayer and in its power to save his life. The men whose lives were spared in the story cited in the Gemara truly believed that their prayers could, and would, effect change, and therefore their prayers did so. While the other men surely focused on the content of their prayers, they did not wholeheartedly believe that their tefillos would be able to save them; hence, their prayers were not effective.

For our personal tefillos to work, we must not only be mindful of the words (which is, of course, very important), we must internalize the idea that the words we recite can truly make a difference between life and death.

Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, zt”l, whose remarkable abilities in prayer were legendary, truly felt his tefillos could result in the salvation of Klal Yisrael. In the spring of 1942, the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael was in a state of great panic. General Erwin Rommel, considered one of Hitler’s greatest generals, had invaded Egypt and was only a few dozen kilometers west of Alexandria. It was clear that he was heading toward the Suez Canal and on to Eretz Yisrael. The mission was clear: the annihilation of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. The British army based in Mandatory Palestine was prepared to retreat to Iraq. Only a miracle, it seemed, could stop Rommel. And then . . . a miracle happened. Inexplicably, the German forces were defeated at El Alamein—but, truthfully, it wasn’t inexplicable: the Jews had the tefillos of the Chazon Ish on their side.

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, one of the greatest posekim in our generation, was known for his unmatched hasmadah, diligence in Torah study. As a result, it was difficult to engage him in small talk. Many years ago, I did manage to do so when I attended the wedding of one of his granddaughters, and I used the opportunity to ask some questions about his family history.

There is a famous story surrounding the circumstances of Rav Elyashiv’s birth. His mother, the only daughter of the Leshem, a famous mekubal, was married to a tremendous Torah scholar. The couple was married for a long time and had no children. After exhausting every effort to have a child, Rav Elyashiv’s mother agreed to travel from Lithuania to Warsaw to consult with one of the world’s leading medical specialists in the field. Unfortunately, he told her what other professionals had told her over the years—that she would never be able to bear children. Returning home crushed and heartbroken, she wanted to spare her father, who lived with them, the terrible news. Quietly, she went to the shed in back of the house and began weeping tears of agony and frustration. All of her years of pain and longing were expressed in those tears. When her father heard her crying, she shared with him the grim prognosis. The Leshem gave her a berachah that not only would she have a child by the following year but that he would serve as the “light of the generation.” A year later, her only child was born—the future famed gadol Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

At the wedding I attended, Rav Elyashiv confirmed that the story was true. I then asked a follow-up question: why didn’t the Leshem give his daughter the berachah years earlier and spare her the pain and suffering of going to all of the medical professionals and hearing the agonizing diagnosis over and over again?

The tears of the Jewish people, gathered over the years, were too precious for Hashem to destroy. Hashem preserved the tears, setting them aside to be used throughout the ages when needed by Klal Yisrael.

Rav Elyashiv explained that only after all options were exhausted and all avenues were closed off would his mother’s tefillah be effective. Once she felt that her only hope was from Hashem, her Creator, the tefillah became a different sort of tefillah, rendering her worthy of Hashem’s direct intervention.

This, in essence, is what the gemara in Sotah states when discussing why the Imahos were initially barren: “Hashem desires the prayers of tzaddikim.” According to the Mabit, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef di Trani, Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted the Shevatim, and thereby Klal Yisrael, to be the product of a higher level of tefillah. Similarly, meriting to have a son of the caliber of Rav Elyashiv required a higher level of tefillah as well.

Whenever I speak about the topic of tefillah, there is always at least one person, irrespective of the age or religious level of the audience, who asks the following: What about the times that we daven with all our heart and it seemingly goes unanswered? What about the times we dutifully recite Tehillim for an ill individual and that person dies?

I always provide this reply: In a rather bold statement, the Gemara declares: “Kol tefillah einah chozeres reikam—no tefillah returns ‘empty’ (unanswered).” Yet further down on the very same page, the Gemara states somewhat contradictorily that if at first one’s tefillah is not answered, he should daven again.

How do we resolve this seeming contradiction? Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, New York, explains that one must read the words carefully. The Gemara, he says, does not say no tefillah goes unanswered; it says, “einah chozeres reikam—no tefillah returns empty.” Which means every tefillah serves a purpose; it just might not be the purpose you wanted.

In other words, while you may not succeed in getting exactly what you desire, no tefillah is for naught. We might, for example, pray that a certain sick individual be healed but Hakadosh Baruch Hu in his infinite wisdom, which we cannot fathom, decides to take our tefillah and direct it toward healing a different person, or maybe even to help ourselves. Hashem uses all tefillos, even if some are redirected.

This concept is illustrated in a perplexing midrash elaborating on the difference between the plague of hail and all the other plagues that afflicted the Egyptians. In the case of every plague other than hail, when Moshe prayed for it to stop, it did. Conversely, when Moshe prayed for the plague of hail to end, the hailstones froze and remained suspended in midair. The midrash explains that this was because Hashem wanted to use the hail in the future in the battle between Yehoshua and the inhabitants of Yericho. The midrash goes on to say that any residual hailstones will be preserved for the Battle of Gog and Magog, which will usher in the days of Mashiach.

Obviously, Hakadosh Baruch Hu can create hail whenever necessary. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, vice president of the Rabbinical Court and the ra’avad (chief) of the Eidah Hachareidis in Jerusalem, provides a beautiful explanation by drawing upon another midrash. The hail used to afflict the Egyptians was comprised of the tears of Klal Yisrael. Every tear shed during the torturous years of slavery was collected by Hakadosh Baruch Hu and subsequently used to form the hail. This is why it could not simply disappear like the other plagues. The tears of the Jewish people, gathered over the years, were too precious for Hashem to destroy. Hashem preserved the tears, setting them aside to be used throughout the ages when needed by Klal Yisrael.

The deeper message of the midrash is clear—our tears and our tefillos are never in vain. If they are not used at that time, they will be used at another time or for another purpose.

When you are asked to say Tehillim for a choleh, or when you take a siddur in hand to daven for yourself, take a moment or two to reflect before you begin. Reinforce in yourself the belief that your tefillos truly have the power to effect a change. Even if that change may not be exactly what you davened for, rest assured that a change will nonetheless take place.

I am living proof of that incredible power.

Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Zev Ginzberg is rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Cedarhurst, New York. This article was written l’zecher nishmas Sarah Chaya z”l bas Rav Chaim Aryeh Zev.


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This article was featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Jewish Action.