Last week we touched briefly on the power of one’s tefilos to affect another person’s ruchniyus. The Maor Va’Shemesh writes that even those who did join in the physical battle against Midyan shared responsibility for the soldiers’ hirhurei avirah during battle. Why are those who remained behind responsible for the aveiros of the soldiers? Because had they been davening better for the soldiers' success, there would not have been aveiros!
We find the same idea in this week’s parsha. One who murders b’shogeg must remain in a city of refuge until the death of the kohen gadol. The Mishna says that the mothers of the kohanim used to deliver food to these refugees so they wouldn’t daven for the death of their children. What did the kohanim do wrong to deserve this? The gemara explains that they should have davened that there be no killings on their watch (see Maharal, Gur Aryeh, on Rashi 35:25!)
(Parenthetically, the Targum Yonasan says the K.G. should have davened for this on Yom Kippur, opening the door to the question of why a K.G. appointed after Y.K. who dies before the next Y.K. responsible. I'm not so bothered if the details of derush don't match the halacha 100%, but see the notes in the Gan Ravah which discusses this.)
Another example: The gemara (Brachos 10) tells us that Brurya told her husband, R’ Meir, that rather than pray for the demise of the sinners in the neighborhood, he should daven that they do teshuvah.
Question: Hakol b’yedei shamayim chutz m’yiras shamayim – commitment and belief must be arrived at through free will, bechira chofshis. How then can one person’s tefilos influence whether another person will do teshuvah, will do aveiros or mitzvos?
There are two basic approaches to the issue:
1) Tefilah has an indirect effect. Most of the meforshim I have seen take this approach. Bechira does not take place in a vacuum. There are always obstacles which prevent us from being truly free to make any choices we like. Temptation, a lack of ability to focus on what is important, jobs and stress which sap energy and concentration all tilt the scale. Another person’s tefilah cannot cause me to choose to do the right thing, but it can cause Hashem to remove some of the obstacles that might be preventing me from framing the issue properly and being truly free to choose.
2) Tefilah has a direct effect. This approach is developed by R’ Dessler in Michtav m’Eliyahu. Every cheit in effect is a chilul Hashem, as it minimizes Hashem’s glory in the world. Onesh is not punitive or vindictive, but rather is meant to restore that glory to its proper place by showing that those who act improperly suffer consequences. But what if Hashem’s glory could be restored in some other way? That’s exactly what happens when someone else is inspired to daven for a chotei. Instead of sin desecrating G-d’s name, sin becomes a vehicle for people to draw close to Hashem.
There seems to be differences in the way this idea is presented in different essays in Michtav. In my simplified version the chotei escapes punishment because the chilul Hashem he/she caused is rectified in some other way, namely by arousing tefilos of others. In other places R’Dessler seems to stress that tefilah must also impact the chotei. By becoming aware that he/she has served as an inspiration to tefilah, the chotei him/herself is inspired to do better. In yet other places Michtav relates this idea to his concept of nekudas habechira. We do not actively engage in choosing every action we do. Most of what we do is by rote and habit – e.g. I did not really have to exercise my bechira chofshis in deciding not to eat treif for lunch today. On the other hand, someone who is used to eating a Big Mac for lunch and then becomes a ba’al teshuvah may really have to exercise bechira and choose to not go down that road again. Which situations require active bechira varies by person. Somehow tefilah can change someone's nekudas habechira so they are not forces to choose how to act in scenarios that might trip them up. I’m not clear on how this works or how it fits together with the other points R' Dessler makes.
Along similar lines as this topic, Chassidishe seforim in many places mention that a tzadik has the power to elevate tefilos of others even where those tefilos are inadequate or would otherwise be rejected (one example: see Tiferes Shlomo, Parshas Pinchas, on “Vayakreiv Moshe es mishpatan…:) I don’t fully understand how this works. How can someone else help my tefilos do their job if the words are undeserving? Maybe somebody can explain it.