Monday, November 7, 2011

Vayeira, Breishis 18:17-18. The Novelty and the Power of Tefilla

1המכסה אני מאברהם אשר אני עושה ואברהם היה יהיה לגוי גדול ועצום ונברכו בו כול גויי הארץ

17.  Am I hiding from Avraham what I intend to do (to S'dom)?  18.  And Avraham will become a great and mighty nation.....

Rashi explains that Passuk 17 presents an implicit reason for Hashem's decision to tell Avraham about the future of S'dom.  As Rashi says, the land was promised to Avraham, and he is Av Hamon Goyim, the father of multitudes of nations; if the residents of his land are going to be destroyed, he should be told.  But passuk 18, le'goy gadol, that Avraham is the progenitor of a great nation, doesn't seem to have any relevance to Hashem’s decision to let Avraham know about the fate of S'dom. 

Rashi offers two possible explanations of passuk 18.  1. That it was simply a bracha to Avraham; having mentioned Avraham, Hashem gave him a bracha, and it has no particular relevance to the matter at hand; or 2. Avraham is dear to Me, so I will not hide anything from him.

The Maharil Diskin  explains passuk 18 differently.  Until that moment, Avraham didn't realize that tefilla made sense to change a gzeira.  If Hashem has made a decree, especially when it is a judgment for sinful behavior, what's the point of tefilla?  Many people feel that way about prayer.  Are you explaining something to G-d?  I recently saw an article in the New Yorker magazine by Professor James Wood, perhaps today's preeminent literary critic, that expresses this perplexity with the usual type of chutzpah that bespeaks a desperate desire to rationalize kefirah.  (Is That All There Is?, New Yorker Magazine of August 2011.)

The Bible contains several examples of God… appearing to sanction what seems arbitrary or cruel conduct: the command that Abraham kill his son, the tormenting of Job….  The Old Testament seems to have an apprehension of Plato’s dilemma, when it has Abraham plead with a vengeful [god] to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Abraham bargains with God: would He spare the city for the sake of fifty innocents? How about forty-five, or forty, or thirty? He gets God down to ten, and almost seems to shame Him, or perhaps teach Him, and hold Him to an ethics independent of His own impulses: “Far be it from You!” he chides [God]. “Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?”

Looking past Professor Wood's hauteur, the question about Tefilla is a legitimate one.  But let us assume that Avraham Avinu was intelligent enough to have asked himself the same question; granting the validity of the question,when Hashem told Avraham about S’dom, Avraham Avinu asked himself, “What is the purpose of this information?  Why is Hashem telling me what He plans to do?”  Avraham, an anav, didn't think it was for the reasons listed in Rashi in 17.  Faced with this puzzle, Avraham realized that despite the very good question, the only possible explanation for the Nevuah was that Hashem wanted him to pray on their behalf, and that tefilla might change the gzeira.  Having learned this lesson, Avraham immediately prayed for S’dom.  The tefilla did not change the g'zeira entirely, but at least it saved his nephew, Lot.

Afterwards, Avraham applied this lesson and prayed for Avimelech, whose sins had resulted in a curse that prevented the women in his household from giving birth.  The tefillos were successful and Avimlelech was cured, but more importantly, כל המבקש רחמים על חבירו והוא צריך לאותו דבר הוא נענה תחילה (see Bava Kamma 92a), -one who prays for someone else when he himself suffers from the same problem, he is answered first- it resulted in VaHashem pakad es Sarah, Sara became pregnant and had a child. 

This explains 18.  In order for Avraham to have children, in order for him to be the father of a great nation, a three step process had to be initiated.  1. He has to learn that a G’zeira is mutable and subject to change through tefilla.  2. Once he learns this lesson, he will pray for Avimelech.  3. His prayer for Avimelech will enable him to have children.  

This is why 19 says 
כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצווה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה' לעשות צדקה ומשפט למען הביא ה' על אברהם את אשר דיבר עליו
Because I know that he will perpetuate in his children his teachings of the way of Hashem- so that what was promised to Avraham would come about.
How do we understand the last phrase, le'maan havi?  According to the Maharil Diskin, it is an explanation.  I will teach Avraham about the power of Tefilla, so that he will pray for the women in the house of Avimelech, so that his own wife will be able to have the promised children who will carry on his mesorah.

(Does this pshat assumes that Avraham was not aware of the story of kol siach hasadeh (Breishish 2:5), where Rashi says the Hashem held the vegetation back so that Adam would be mispallel for it to grow?  No.  There, it was not  a Gzeira against grass, it was an opportunity to let Adam participate in the creation of the world.  Here, where the gzeira was a judgment for sins, it was a big chiddush that tefilla could avert the Gzeira.)

No, the passuk does not explain the mechanism of tefilla, and the question remains a good question.  But the point is that the Ribono shel Olam taught Avraham that despite the excellent question, tefilla can change everything.  So, Professor Wood, the point of this episode is not that one should try to shame the Ribono shel Olam into changing His mind, or that we need to teach Humanism to G-d.  To interpret the pesukim in that manner expresses a desire to see the Chumash as backward and primitive, an assumption that flies in the face of the reality of a sophisticated and peerless ethical and sociological code.  If one assumes, instead, that the Author of the Torah is infinitely wise, then one easily finds a deep lesson here.  The lesson is the procedural fact that even after the sword has been unsheathed, G-d grants a last resort avenue of appeal.  Avraham Avinu, the great Anav, knew although he still did not understand how it could possibly make any difference, the need for and benefit from Tefilla is limitless.  He immediately applied the lesson as best he could under the circumstances.  After all, there is not a lot one could say to gain clemency for the abominable Sodomites.

I find it interesting that willful obliviousness will obscure even the most obvious intent of the Torah's lessons.  Not only does the lesson fall on deaf ears, but ironically, the lesson is so badly misinterpreted as to yield the opposite message.  

In our case, the episode makes it clear that the logic of tefilla is beyond human comprehension, and we are left on our own to devise what tefilla we think might be most effective.  Our choice of words might be inelegant or even primitive, but whatever approach we use, whether it is a request for consideration of the secondary consequences of enforcing judgment, or a prayer for a second chance, or we simply ask for a gift of clemency, the essence of tefilla as taught to Avraham Avinu is the appeal to Hashem's mercy.  Avraham Avinu had a hava amina that tefilla would be of no avail where a gzeira was a well-deserved judgment for terrible sins.  Hashem told him that even where you can’t come up with a good argument, Tefilla is a powerful tool that can change reality- Middas Hadin to Middas Harachamim, and, ultimately, barren old age to fresh and fruitful youth.  Unfortunately, some people read the story and remain with the Hava Amina.

Here is another interesting example. Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, planned to allow the Jews to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash, but delayed putting his plan into effect until he finished a military campaign against Iran.  He was mortally wounded during that war and died before he could carry out his plan.  Julian was named The Apostate by the Christians for his rejection of Christian belief.  He wouldn't count for a minyan, but he seems to have been, for a Roman Emperor, a pretty decent person.  Julian recorded some thoughts about the Bible, and his comment about the Bris Bein Habesarim is fascinating; he writes that the reason Avraham Avinu cut the animals in half was so he could divine the future by examining their entrails, and that he was told to go outside and look at the stars so that he could foretell the future by his Astrology.  How ironic!  Although we know that Avraham Avinu was at one time respected for his prognostications (Bava Basra 16b), this episode is, for us, the source for the idea of Ein Mazal L’yisrael (Nedarim 32a and Shabbos 156a), that astrology is utterly insignificant for the servants of Hashem, and poor Julian saw the opposite.  


  1. I've been wrestling with the issues presented herein for several days now. For now regarding:

    "No, the passuk does not explain the mechanism of tefilla, and the question remains a good question. "

    Which question remains a good quesiton? The mechanism of tefila?


  2. Yes. Sometimes, the purpose of tefilla is to elevate the person who is praying; or to give that person the merit of being the conduit through whom Hashem's middas harachamim flows; or to enable a person to be a partner with the Ribono shel Olam. That's fine when the tefilla is like that of Moshe Rabbeinu for Miriam in Bamidbar 12:13, נא רפא נא לה. But the language of tefilla often seems to be an attempt to sway or convince or explain, which is hard to understand when talking to the Omniscient G-d.