A number of worthy organizations and individuals have taken upon themselves the arduous task of “stopping the talking in shul.” As someone who is boruch Hashem approaching my fortieth year in rabbonus, I can personally testify that this is one of the most baffling and difficult of battlegrounds.
Every rov has experienced the problem of “preaching to the choir.” By and large, those who are in shul don’t need the drasha exhorting them to daven with a minyan or attend a shiur. They are already there, their tallis and tefillin on, and they have been davening and learning as they should. And yet, they talk. These days, other than Shabbos and Yom Tov, they are also often texting.
One would love to channel the Berditchever and assume that every texter is engaged in something that is sakonas nefashos or pikuach nefesh. But, honestly, how many are doctors, members of Hatzolah or advising the president? So why aren’t we more cognizant of the fact that we are speaking to the Master of the Universe? Would we even glance aside if we did get a moment with the president? Surely, everyone has something important to ask of the Creator, so why do we insult Him and virtually nullify our own supplications with the inane and trivial?
There is probably no one answer to this nearly universal malady, but one solution to this troubling enigma is undoubtedly that we don’t put the same amount of time and effort into our tefillah curriculum as we do into other areas. We don’t grow up with the primacy of tefillah in our hearts and we don’t really appreciate or understand the immense power of even one of our prayers. It may be hard, if not impossible, to change the classroom syllabus, given the incredible constraints of time upon rabbeim and yeshivos. Girls schools spend more time on bi’ur tefillah and its importance, as do some of the chassidishe mosdos. But perhaps we can all begin to motivate ourselves by studying the tremendous potential of koach hatefillah in our lives. Let us take a few moments right now to remind ourselves how forceful a heartfelt prayer and a cry from the heart can be, and how that can be destroyed in a moment by unnecessary and forbidden talk.
We must begin with the entreaty of the Chofetz Chaim. When the communists came to power, the Chofetz Chaim felt the pain of every one of the three million Jews who found themselves trapped in the evil empire that forbade any form of Torah or tefillah in its midst. Finally, when the rov of Slutsk, Rav Yechezel Abramsky zt”l, was arrested and exiled to glacial Siberia, the Chofetz Chaim stood up in his Radin Yeshiva, crying and bewailing the fate of the revered gaon. One of the elder esteemed members of the yeshiva followed up on the moving drasha by announcing that they should now “say Tehillim.” However, the Chofetz Chaim uncharacteristically interrupted, demanding, “What are we, a chevra Tehillim? This is not the time to say Tehillim. This is the time to scream out Tehillim. In Mitzrayim, they screamed out, and in that merit they were saved.”
The entire assemblage did indeed cry out and the “cries pierced the heavens.” A short while later, Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l was visiting the Chofetz Chaim and they were learning together. Suddenly, the Chofetz Chaim raised his head jubilantly and declared, “The Bolsheviks have not succeeded.” Three times he proclaimed, “Against their will they had to free the rov of Slutzk.” Rav Elchonon made careful note of the exact time and later determined that indeed, at that precise moment, Rav Abramsky was freed (Ohr Elchonon 1:60).
We are not with the Chofetz Chaim in Radin, but we, too, can cry out, and at the very least, we can be silent when we must and not move our thumbs when it is our hearts that must be moved.
Another reason that our tefillos are not always what they should be is that, boruch Hashem, we are often reasonably happy, healthy and secure. People in crisis do indeed cry out, and their tefillos are often stirring enough to motivate others as well. But in an affluent and fairly robust environment, we mumble words dutifully, while our hearts and often minds are disconnected from our words. For this, the K’sav Sofer has strong words of advice: The day Sarah conceived Yitzchok, many barren women were cured as well. The Medrash teaches that the day Moshe Rabbeinu was rescued by Paroh’s daughter from the river, 600,000 other Jewish babies were saved as well. This is because Hashem loves our tefillos, and even if one person does not need to cry out for himself, his or her prayers can bring a yeshuah to countless others. Thus, concludes the K’sav Sofer, one should always daven with great kavanah, crying out sincerely to Hashem, for one never knows who will be helped by the tefillah, whether it is oneself, a relative, a friend or a stranger.
In truth, Hashem often answers our needs even before we ask, since He is well aware of our needs, but He loves the prayers of the righteous so much that He waits for us to turn to Him in prayer. If we would realize how precious each word of tefillah is to our Creator and how many miracles it can bring about, we would never waste a moment of that precious opportunity (quoted in Knesses Yisroel to Tehillim 118, page 352).
The great maggid, Rav Shalom Schwadron zt”l, once noted the power of prayer from what was a tragic moment in Jewish history. After the sin of the Eigel, Hashem angrily responded to Moshe Rabbeinu’s plea for mercy with the words “Release Me and I shall destroy them…” (Devorim 9:14). “We see,” Rav Schwadron deduced, “that through the power of tefillah, it was as if, kevayachol, so to speak, Moshe Rabbeinu was holding Hashem back from destroying His people. Now, although we obviously cannot compare ourselves to Moshe, what we can derive is some inkling of the potential power of a prayer” (Kol Dodi Dofek, page 129).
Rav Gedalya Schorr zt”l (Ohr Gedalyahu, Devorim, page 203, note 2) makes a similar point regarding Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayers to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisroel. The Medrash comments that we can see the power of tefillah from the fact that Hashem commanded Moshe, “Al tosef – Do not continue to speak to Me further about this matter” (Devorim 4:26). We see that had he, in fact, davened, he would have entered the land, as he wished. Now, the Medrash continues with Moshe Rabbeinu’s complaint to the Bnei Yisroel as to why they, too, did not daven for him to enter the Land. Rav Schorr asks: “Why didn’t Moshe actually make the request of us that we daven for him”? He answers that included in Hashem’s edict of “Al tosef” was that he was not permitted to ask this of us. We see, concludes Rav Schorr, that although Moshe was forbidden to ask, nevertheless, had we davened on our own, we could have nullified the decree.
Just in case we rationalize once again that we are not nearly on Moshe Rabbeinu’s level and therefore our tefillos are not all that important, let us heed the words of a great baal mussar. Rav Chaim Ephraim Zaichik (Ohr Hanefesh 2:135) points out that the kohein gadol recited a special tefillah that Hashem should not listen to the prayers of the travelers who would daven for good traveling weather instead of the much-needed rain. Now, these wayfarers were actually being quite self-centered in putting their own convenience ahead of all of the residents of Eretz Yisroel, yet the holiest figure in Klal Yisroel, the kohein gadol, had to be concerned that Hashem would heed the Tefillas Haderech of a few if they davened with the proper kavanah and decorum.
Rav Zaitchik quotes Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, the Alter of Slabodka, who similarly pointed out that Moshe Rabbeinu had to implore Hashem not to heed the supplications of Korach and his clan, even though their agenda was evil, since a proper prayer carries its own efficaciousness.
Rav Yechezkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, Letters, 1:304), too, discovered this great secret that even imperfect people can accomplish much with appropriate prayers. The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 11) teaches that Hashem told Moshe to stand before Paroh to make sure that he did not pray to Hashem. Now Paroh is one of the main embodiments of evil in the pantheon of enemies of Klal Yisrael, and yet even his ability to pray must be neutralized if Klal Yisroel is to triumph over him. Therefore, let none of us minimize the power of our own tefillos when even Paroh’s prayers would have received a fair hearing by the One Who created us all.
To conclude with a powerful story about the power of tefillah, even that of a simple person, please listen to what a decent but unsophisticated woman accomplished with her prayers. She had innocently opened a shoe store that flourished, became popular and brought her great success. One day, however, a man opened a competing store directly across the street, undercut her prices, and specifically advertised sales of items she was known to offer in her establishment. One day, she could take it no more, took out 5,000 shekalim, and gave it to tzedakah and davened that in the merit of her charity, Hashem, in His wisdom, should do what was necessary to remove the unscrupulous competition from her life. Almost immediately, the man’s fortunes began to change, and eventually, he suffered tremendous losses in his personal and business life. When the woman realized that all this had apparently happened due to her charity and prayers, she felt extremely remorseful and approached Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein for a path to repentance. She wanted to do teshuvah for causing her tormenter all that suffering, asking if the money she had donated could still be considered tzedakah. Rav Zilberstein turned to his brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, for advice. Rav Kanievsky ruled that the tzedakah she had given could be considered charity, albeit not for the sake of heaven. Rav Zilberstein thereupon advised the woman to give 10,000 shekel to tzedakah and make a mi shebeirach for her competitor every day for 30 days (see Aleinu Leshabeiach, introduction to volume 5, page 30). In any case, one can certainly see how powerful a prayer can be, even from a simple person who had an inappropriate agenda.
If we would take a few moments occasionally to study the power of our tefillos, perhaps we would not talk as much, or even at all, during what the Kuzari calls the best part of our day and the most important moments of our lives.