Making Tefillah (Prayer) Count
[The following remarks are an abridged version of a powerful address delivered by Rabbi Yissacher Frand at the Young Israel of Flatbush Tuesday evening, September 25, 2001 in a Teshuva Drasha sponsored by the Just One Life Project. Rabbi Frand's complete remarks on this occasion and on a subsequent lecture dealing with the events of September 11th are now available as a two-part cassette Theme Set: Reflections on 9/11 by Rabbi Yissocher Frand". The tapes are available through http://www.yadyechiel.org/]
It seems that every generation has a question that it must answer and that is "Where were you when…?" For my parents, of blessed memory, their generation's question was "Where were you on December 7, 1941?" I thought that for my generation the question would be "Where were you on November 22, 1963?" (the day that Kennedy was shot). And now I believe all of us will forever remember and know the answer to the question "Where were you on September 11, 2001?"
I will share with you where I was. I was in my office sitting at my computer and was in the midst of doing the second version of this Teshuva drasha (lecture on Repentance). I had already completed an entire draft of this lecture, I had shown it to four different people whose opinions I value, and two of them came back and told me that they did not think that it was a good drasha. They did not think it would resonate with the common man. As one person put it, "it won't hit home with Chaim Dov". So I was in the middle of recasting version two of this lecture when the phone rang. It was about 9:30 in the morning and my son called and said, "Did you hear what happened?" He then proceeded to tell me the events that none of us believed then and are still have trouble believing to this day. Then, after a day in which I could do literally nothing, I began casting the 3rd version of my lecture. But ironically, I discovered that I was now right back where I started.
The person I asked told me that my prepared lecture would not resonate with "Chaim Dov", because I had planned this lecture to be about Davening (prayer [Yiddish]). I had planned to speak about how to pray effectively and I had planned to make the point that Davening is effective when one realizes that his utter existence is dependent upon G-d. I planned to make the point how Tefillah (prayer [Hebrew]) is really about a relationship – the most important relationship that each and every one of us has. It is not with our spouses and not with our children. It is with our Maker, the Master of the World. This is what I had planned to talk about all along.
But the person who I consulted with advised me that this is a topic that Chaim Dov, the typical head of a household would not relate to. Who is this Chaim Dov? He is a 35-year-old man in the best of health. He has a wonderful wife. He has beautiful, healthy children, who don't cause him any grief and who are not old enough to need shidduchim (match-making services). Chaim Dov cannot relate to the fact that his life hangs in the balance. "I am making a good living. I have nachas all around me. I am secure."
That was all through September 10th. And then on September 11th everything changed, even for our Reb Chaim. Because when one opens up a newspaper and sees the common man and woman on the street talking about how tenuous life is, then Chaim Dov can no longer say to himself "What do I have to worry about?" We now, too, can relate together with our friend, Reb Chaim, to the words of our Sages.
The Sages teach that on Yam Suf (Reed Sea), when the Jewish people had their back to the Sea and were surrounded by the enemy on one side and by wild animals on the other, they cried out: "And they feared greatly and the Children of Israel cried out (Va'yitz-aku) to G-d [Shmos 14:10]." Rashi comments on the word "Va'yitz-aku" – here they grabbed the profession of their forefathers in their hands. Reb Yeruchem Levovitz; (1874-1934; Mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva; Mir, Poland) asks, "What does it mean that here they grabbed the profession of their forefathers – they had cried out previously as well?" Reb Yeruchem answers that this points out the difference between the way our forefathers prayed and the way we pray. The forefathers could have been experiencing serene lives but they realized at every single moment that if they don't have the Mercy of G-d, their serenity could immediately be withdrawn. It was at that moment on Yam Suf when there was no other option, nowhere to turn and nowhere to go, that the Jewish people first prayed with the intensity of their forefathers. They then came to the inescapable conclusion of what prayer is about. This is what the Mabitz writes: "There is no one who can fill our needs other than Him".
This year especially, when we have asked ourselves so many times "What will be in Eretz Yisrael? There is no option! This plan, that plan. There is no option! What is going to be?" When one comes to that conclusion in life, then he prays sincerely, because he realizes that "There is no one who can fill our needs other than Him".
And, Chaim, if this past year had not done it for you, then September 11th had to do it! Now you realize, Chaim, that you may be healthy and happy but there is no one who can fill our needs other than Him. You have come to the same realization that a simple man from Jerusalem came to.
Like so many Jews in Jerusalem, he worked his whole life but when it came time to marry off his own daughter, he just didn't have the money. Someone advised him to go to America and collect money. He responded, "You know why I am not going? Because I see what happens to my friends. They go to America. They wander around from city to city. They make a few dollars. They suffer a lot of humiliation. They come back to Israel. They see there is no option and then they start to pray. I am just going to cut out the middle step. I see that the only way this is going to happen is that 'There is no one who can fill our needs other than Him'."
And, Chaim, how can you take you health and wealth and family for granted after this month? Whether you are a believer and believe in Divine Providence or you are not a believer and think it is just luck, but if you hear all those stories – about the people who went to a Bris and were late to work, or about all those people who stayed an extra half hour for Selichos (Penitential prayers) and were late to work – that saved people's lives, how can you take anything for granted?
And, Chaim, how can you not relate to the words of one Hatzalah member who wrote as follows: "When I got up this morning and said 'Modeh Ani' (I gratefully Thank You…) it had a whole different meaning; the blessing of 'Mechaye Meisim' (who brings the dead back to life) has a different meaning; 'Modim' (we are grateful…) took a lot longer than usual. I wasn't in a rush to leave shul (synagogue) this morning. Life is so short and precious. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a situation like this to wake us up."
And once you realize that, Chaim, and you come to that conclusion – that there is no one to turn to other than the Master of the World – then perhaps you will realize one of the key ingredients that makes prayer successful: The more you believe in Tefillah the more it helps! Hear me well, Chaim: The more you believe in it and put your faith in it and THINK that it works, that is commensurate with the way it WILL work.
The Talmud tells us [Makkos 11a] that if a person murders by accident, he has to go to one of the cities of refuge and remains there until the High Priest dies. Therefore, the Gemara tells us, the mothers of the High Priests used to provide these refugees with "CARE packages" to gain their good graces so that they wouldn't pray for the death of their sons.
The question needs to be asked – we are not talking about righteous people here. We are talking about murderers, people responsible for the deaths of innocent people. These are wicked individuals. Who cares if they pray that the High Priest should drop dead? The Alter from Kelm (R. Simcha Zissel Ziv; 1824-1898) responds "Because these 'murderers' know that there is only One Being that controls life and death. It is no one else – only the Master of the World. When they pray, they put everything they have into that prayer. Prayer uttered with faith is prayer that works. They might be murderers, but their prayers may nevertheless be answered because they bring the ingredient of faith to that prayer."
Rav Shmuel Graynemen said in his eulogy on the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz; 1878-1953; Bnei Brak) that the Chazon Ish once commented to him, "Why didn't they let me know from Heaven that there was going to be a Holocaust?". The Chazon Ish had Divine intuition (Ruah HaKodesh) about many matters. About such a cataclysmic event he asked "Why did they hide this from me in Heaven?" He answered his own question "because if they would have told me, I would have rallied the nation in prayer and there wouldn't have been a Holocaust!"
That is what it means to believe in one's power of prayer! That is what gives prayer its effectiveness.
And now, my dear Chaim, if you ask me, and you say "But my prayers don't work. I can give you a dozen people that I prayed for and they died. So why are you telling me that Tefillah works?" Let me give you several answers, my dear Chaim.
Tefillah works because it is a relationship. That is why it is so fundamental to Judaism. It is the medium in which we relate to G-d. That is why he wants us to daven. He wants to have a relationship with each and every one of us. If Tefillah is about a relationship, Chaim, then one must ask oneself a very fundamental question. How do you treat davening? You want it to work? It works. But how do you treat it?
Rav Matisyahu Solomon said something last week, that was most troubling. Rav Yosef Caro rules in the Shulchan Aruch that a person who speaks during the repetition of Shmoneh Esrei "his sin is too great to forgive" (gadol avono m'neso). One can put that prhase in the computer and do a word search. This is the one and only place we find this expression in the entire Code of Jewish Law. We do not find it by Sabbath desecration, we do not find it by eating Chometz on Pessach, nor by eating on Yom Kippur. Just one time: A person who speaks during the Chazan's repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei (Chazaras HaSh"tz) has committed a sin which is "too great to forgive". How could that be? Speaking during repetition of the Chazan is the worst sin in the world?
Rav Matisyahu Solomon said that speaking during Chazaras HaSh"tz is symptomatic of how one treats davening. It is not the sin per say which is so grievous, but davening is a relationship with G-d. Is this how one treats that relationship! The repetition of the Chazan is known as the "Prayer of the Congregation". By speaking at that time one is desecrating the whole concept of public prayer. Humiliating prayer is humiliating one of the fundamental principles of Judaism. That is why it is so terrible.
If we have an appointment to speak with someone and they are always looking at their watch throughout the appointment, how do we feel? How do we feel when we call to talk to someone and he is always rushing to finish the conversation? How do we feel when the person we are trying to communicate with always seems like he is trying to get away from us?
How rude! That is a relationship? Always trying to get out? No time for me? Can't speak to me like a decent person? That is a relationship? Imagine I would walk into someone else's living room. Would I treat it like my living room? In my living room I can take my shoes off, open my tie, lie down on the sofa. I wouldn't do that in someone else's living room. There I'm a guest.
How do we treat a shul? Should we treat it like it was our living room? Should we shmooze (idle talk) there? Should we socialize there? Is this how we treat G-d's House?
There is a fellow I know in Baltimore. "Man sees with his eyes and G-d sees into the heart" [Samuel I 16:7], but the way I see it this fellow is a great davener. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, the way he davens is amazing to watch. I called him up. I said "Please forgive me, I am going to ask you an embarrassing question, but I am doing this for the good of the larger community. Please tell me, what is your secret? How do you manage to daven like that?"
He said, "I can't tell you what I think when I daven, but I will tell you one thing. I once heard a tape from Rav Noach Weinberg where he advised the listener to go into shul and to try to not say a word to a human being. I did it once. My davening was totally different."
To this day, many years later, he does not say a word – not hello, not goodbye, not 'how-are-you?', not a word' – to another human being in shul! He said it has caused him embarrassment. Relatives have come in from out of town. They came over to him in shul and give him a "Shalom Aleichem", and he doesn't answer them. But, he said, it has had a profound effect. The synagogue becomes not a place of socialization, not a place to schmooze, not a place to find out what is going on, not a place to relax. The place is one thing and one thing only: G-d's place! Try that.
Tefillah is a relationship. The closest thing I can compare it to is the relationship between a parent and his child. We love our relationship with our children. But we don't want our children to have the relationship that the only thing they ever talk about with us is money. If all they ever ask from us is money, that is not a relationship. A relationship is shmoozing and talking and conversing and sharing inner feelings and asking for counsel and sharing one's days and one's self and then "I need a couple of bucks". "Certainly, my dear child." But I am not an ATM machine! And if that's all a parent is, then it is not a relationship. And maybe, Chaim, that is why your Tefillos haven't worked.
And if, Chaim, you say that you do daven with your heart and you trust in davening and respect it and still sometimes your prayers are not answered, take solace in the fact that we have no one greater than Moshe Rabbeinu. No one knew how to daven better than Moshe. When Moshe davened for the thing he wanted most, the only personal request that he ever asked for, (to enter the Land of Israel), G-d, nevertheless told him "I'm sorry. No." Moshe's reaction, as the Medrash describes it was three simple words: The Rock, His work is perfect (HaTzur Tamim Pealo) [Devorim 32:4] "I accept it because I know that You treat me with perfect goodness."
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) comments on the Gemara [Berachos 6b], which enumerates prayer as one of the items which stand in the heights of Heaven (b'rumo shel olam), but which people treat lightly (bnei adam m'zalzeleen bo) and don't give it its proper due. The Baal Shem Tov interprets that we don't sometimes know what our prayers accomplish in the heights of Heaven. They don't necessarily always have the desired effects that are wanted down here but we don't know what they DO accomplish. We don't know who they did save, who they did help. These are matters that stand in the heights of Heaven – they may have accomplished something for a generation from now or a century from now. Therefore don't treat them lightly. One never knows.
Now I want to come to the bottom line. I want to spell out what I want all of us to do from this point forward.
On that Tuesday (9/11/01) when I was walking around in a daze, I went to someone who is older than I who lived through Pearl Harbor and I asked him, "Is this what it was like? What did people do after Pearl Harbor?" He told me, "I was only 14 years old, but you know what my uncle did? He enlisted in the army!"
This was a religious Jew. Did he know how to fight? No. Did he know which way the bullet comes out of a rifle? No. But his attitude was, "I am going to learn how to fight".
That is what I want us to do. I want everyone in this audience, myself included, to learn how to daven better than they are now davening. Go tomorrow to a Jewish book store and look through the books devoted to prayer – be it the laws of prayer, be it the philosophy of prayer, be it the ethics of praying, English or Hebrew, whatever language it is. But we've got to learn how to daven. We've got to learn how to fight. As our President said, "THIS IS WAR". But for us this war is going to be won on the battlefield of prayer. We therefore have to learn how to pray.
I can guarantee the following: If one makes a study of davening, to learn the meaning of the words, to understand the structure of the prayer, to understand the philosophy of praying, then without a doubt, one's davening will be helped.
How can I make such a guarantee? Because it worked for me. I don't profess to be a great 'davener'. My mind wanders as much as the next guy's. I have as tough a time with it as everyone else. But in the seven weeks that I have been thinking about this lecture and I have been thinking about davening, my davening has gotten better. I guarantee this will be the same for anyone else as well.
We have much to daven for. The dangers that are lurking are nothing short of frightening. The sub-committee on Governmental affairs last week discussed what actions are being anticipated. What will be when they put small pox in an aerosol can and spray it? What about those who plan on renting crop dusters from agricultural areas and filling them with nerve gas to be released over metropolitan areas? When is the last time we've gone over the bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island and seen two Coast Guard Cutters sitting under the bridge? The possibilities are frightening. This is not hyperbole or dramatics. I'm telling it the way it is.
We have only one option open to us. The next time we recite Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father Our King), and we beseech with feeling 'Nullify the plans of our enemies', that will carry the day. "G-d, destroy the thoughts of our enemies".
We have a promise that G-d will listen to our cries. Cries. That is all it takes sometimes. Just to cry. Our Sages say that crying is a form of prayer. Nothing fancy is necessary. We don't need any long "Yehi Ratzons" ("May it be Thy Will…" preparatory prayers). Crying IS prayer.
We heard the microphones on the street during the collapse of the World Trade Center. How many people just said, "Oh! My G-d!"? What is that? That is prayer! That is the innate soul of the human being. When he feels totally helpless, there is no one to turn to, so he intuitively, naturally, thinks "Oh! My G-d!". The soul prays. Why do so many people start crying? They see the buildings collapsing and they start crying! They are grown people, what are they crying for? Because that constitutes prayer. This is the most primordial form of Tefillah when the soul says "G-d Help me!"
The next time you cry, for whatever reason it may be, don't ever waste those tears. Take those tears and channel them to the Master of the World. When Reb Baruch Ber Leibowitz (1870-1941; Kaminetz) was a little boy, his father once spanked him. He did something wrong and his father punished him. Reb Baruch Ber, the father of all the European Roshei Yeshiva was also once a child. He started crying. He then went and took out a Siddur and davened mincha. His father asked, "Why are you davening mincha now?" He responded, "I am crying now anyway, let me at least use the tears."
This is a profound story from a little boy. Have you ever broken down and cried because someone insulted you. Have you ever broken down and cried because your child was just rejected for a Shidduch (marriage proposal)? Did you run upstairs to your bedroom and cry? The next time that happens, don't let those tears go to waste. Those tears hold the greatest potential for effective prayer. Tears are the purest most unadulterated form of Tefillah.
Master of the World, there have been so many cries this year. There have been so many tears. In the rubble of the World Trade Center, we've forgotten about Sbarro's. We've forgotten about all those many stories from Eretz Yisroel. How many children cried at the graves of their parents? How many parents cried at the graves of their children? The crying of Israel has been constant.
G-d, we have cried enough already! G-d, please Help us!
He will be the one who says, "It is enough already" for our troubles. He will be the One who will hear the cries of the children of Israel. He will bring the Messiah, speedily in our days.
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Postscript: Written especially for the Ari Grashin Web Site
The sincere prayers and cries of each lonely Jew are always heard by the Ribbono Shel Olam and do not go unanswered. Certainly this is true of heartfelt communal prayer which emerges from family, friends, and community in behalf of a single individual. One cannot help but be impressed by the dramatic outpouring of emotion and tefillah that is occurring in Seattle, the West Coast and far beyond on behalf of Aryeh Noam Chaim ben Devorah Channah. Allow me to add my sincerest personal tefillos and emotional outcry to this plea.
Avinu Malkeinu, Shelach Refuah Shleimah L'Cholei Amecha [Our Father, Our King send forth a complete recovery to the sick of your people].
Looking forward to seeing postings of Besoros Tovos on the Ari Grashin Web site.
Rabbi Yissocher Frand
June 3, 2002
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It has been my pleasure to satisfy the request of my good friend David Grashin and transcribe the preceding abridged version of Rabbi Frand's Teshuva Drasha for the Ari Grashin Web Site.
May the words of this Drosha give us all Chizuk to energetically and intensely continue our recital of Tehillim and other prayers on behalf of “Ari” and may the relationship we establish with the Almighty through our sincere prayers bring us to the level where we are deserving of having these prayers answered.
May we hear good tidings and find fulfillment of the prayer "And it will be that before they call, I will answer; while they yet speak, I will hear. For You, Hashem, are the One Who responds in time of distress, Who redeems and rescues in every time of distress and woe."
June 3, 2002