Tuesday, November 25, 2014

does G-d answer prayers if the recipient doesn't deserve it?

The Mishna (Brachos 4:4) quotes the view of R’ Yehoshua that if a person is in a dangerous place he can daven a “tefilah ketzara,” a very short tefilah.  The text of that tefilah includes the words, “… b’chol parashas ha’ibbur yehiyu tzorcheihem lifanecha.”  What is the “parashas ha’ibbur?”  The Rishonim explain that it means even when Bnei Yisrael are “porshim l’aveira.”  

If Bnei Yisrael are doing aveiros, then how can we ask or expect Hashem to show mercy?  They are not behaving in a way that deserves mercy!  In the Mishnayos Oholei Shem the author uses this as a proof that tefilah is a metziyus – it functions like a law of nature.  You don’t ask whether an object is deserving or not for the law of gravity to work -- it just works.  In that same way, tefilah can elicit rachamim irrespective of the merits of the request.

Proof from this past week’s parsha: Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma) write that because Eisav let out a cry when he found out the brachos were taken from him, Ya’akov’s great… great gransdson Mordechai midah k’neged midah was forced to cried in pain at Haman’s decrees.  Surely Ya’akov was deserving of the brachos that he received, and Eisav was undoubtedly a villain.  Nonetheless, a true cry, even if it comes from an Eisav, can produce tremendous results in shamayim.  (See Netziv in Harchev Davar 27:9 for a different approach.)

Another proof: In parshas Va’Eschanan, Hashem ordered Moshe to cease davening to go into Eretz Yisrael.  If Hashem did not want Moshe to go, then all the tefilos in the world shouldn’t have made a difference.  Why demand that he stop?  Just don't listen!  Again, we see that tefilah operates as a force within teva. Hashem didn’t want Moshe to go, but Hashem would not overturn teva to prevent Moshe from taking the law into his own hands.


  1. Ma hu rachum, af ata heye rachum. We should all strive to similarly cultivate a "law of nature" level of mercifulness in our own character.

    I mean this in the sense of Alshich's comments on Lo tuchal l'hitalem (Devarim 22:1-3): we should literally "not be able" to ignore it when we see our fellow in need. (Alshich is quoted by Nechama Leibowitz in her first piece on Ki Teze, which is where I first learned it.) We should try to develop the trait of chesed until it becomes as natural, ingrained, and inescapable as gravity for us.

    Does anyone see other ethical lessons or "takeaways" from the Mishnayos Oholei Shem quoted in the post? I confess I struggled for a while to understand how and why thinking of Hashem's mercy in response to tefila/cries as a "law of nature" like "gravity" could be inspiring. At first reading it sounded oddly cold and mechanical, and very unlike our normal understanding of mercy. After some reflection, the above is what I came up with.

  2. You raise an interesting question. Isn't the fact that G-d created a universe with such a law built in itself a great act of rachmanus? And maybe you can distinguish between different types/levels of tefilah.

  3. Someone showed me a Magen Avraham that says that there is a moment every day that tefilla is answered le'tov. I can't find it, maybe I was dreaming. It sounds like, lehavdil, Bilaam's strategy, but l'tovah.