Monday, November 17, 2014
Toldos, Breishis 25:21. Yitzchak's Tefilla & Unintended Consequences. וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה' וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ.
The Torah makes it clear that the success of Yitzchak's tefilla was an extraordinary event. When Yitzchak's tefillos were successful, the passuk refers to this as וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה, and Rashi explains that this means "נתפצר ונתפייס ונתפתה לו." The tefilla exhorted, appeased, and inveigled Hashem to do as Yitzchak asked. This seems extreme. Rashi seems to be saying that the tefillos were answered only because they were singularly unrelenting, conciliatory, and convincing. Why wouldn't Hashem answer Yitzchak as He answers any person that is mispallel? Clearly, there was some kind of barrier that these particular tefillos had to overcome. What was that barrier?
In other words: By Moshe Rabbeinu, we find that he davened five hundred sixteen times, and Hashem not only didn't listen, but Hashem told him to stop davening so that the tefillos shouldn't break through. But that is because there was a shvu'a not to let Moshe enter Eretz Yisrael, so there was an obvious barrier to accepting the tefilla. But here, where the childlessness was only because הקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים, either accept it or don't. Once it was meratzeh, then that should be it. The words Rashi uses indicate more than just ritzui. The expressions in Rashi clearly indicate that the success of these tefillos was contrary to some countervailing consideration.
More clearly: if it was just an issue of א"ר יצחק מפני מה היו אבותינו עקורים מפני שהקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים (Yevamos 64a), then it's just a matter of reaching a certain level or point. Once that point is reached, then the tefilla ought to be answered. Here, Rashi doesn't say that the tefilla was answered because it was sufficient. Rashi says that the tefilla turned the world upside down. It was a krias yam suf, a revolutionary upheaval, and even more- it was, kaviyachol, a metamorphosis of Hashem's will.
The Shai LaTorah vol. I brings that Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld answered this question as follows. The Chasam Sofer was once asked to be mispallel that a women who was having difficulty in labor have a quick birth. He said he could not do that. The Gemara in Kiddushin 72b says that when Reb Akiva died, Rebbi was born; when Rebbi died, Rebbi Yehuda was born; and so on. Only after his replacement is born does a tzadik die. "I know," said the Chasam Sofer, "that this child will be a great tzadik that will bring light to the whole world; his birth will make possible the death of the tzadik that he was born to replace. How can I contribute to the death of that tzadik?" (See end of post for my comment about this story.)
Here, too, said Reb Yosef Chaim, Eisav's birth led to Avraham's premature death, though for a very different reason: Avraham Avinu died five years before his time so that he should not see Eisav going letarbus ra'ah (Rashi 25:30.) If so, the later Eisav is born, the longer Avraham can live; if Eisav were born five years later, Avraham would have lived his whole alloted lifespan. It was only because Yitzchak prayed so relentlessly and effectively that Hashem listened to the tefillos, even at the cost to Avraham.
Rav Sonnenfeld added that "vayei'aseir lo Hashem" is in Gematria "chamesh shanim." The Shai LaTorah says that when Reb Aharon Kotler heard this, he said that a Gematria like that can only come from Ru'ach Hakodesh.
So what do we see? We see that it is possible for a tefilla to be answered even when, unbeknownst to the mispallel, the desired answer is ultimately injurious. The one who is praying knows nothing about the collateral effect of the answer to his tefilla. He is only doing what the Torah teaches- when you need something, pray. But if he davens well enough and hard enough and long enough, sometimes the tefilla is answered as he desires, and this sets into motion a cascade of unintended and unexpected and unwanted consequences. It's like Robert Merton's law of unintended consequences. a widely quoted admonition that intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.
On the other hand, there is an example of precisely the opposite happening- that because of an inappropriate tefilla, Hashem answers with the opposite of what was asked for. In Vayeishev, Breishis 37:2, Rashi says bikeish Yakov leisheiv beshalvah, Yaakov desired to live in peace. The result of that desire was exactly the opposite, that the trouble of Yosef and the brothers immediately began.. Harav Mordechai Yosef Eisenberg, at his sheva brochos, pointed out that from here we see that a tefilla for something inappropriate can bring the opposite result. It says bikeish, and, as a result, kofatz. So we have to be careful about what we daven for, because if it's something that you shouldn't be asking for, it can elicit the opposite of what you desire.
The difference is that there, what was asked for was wrong. A tzadik should not seek tranquility. He is here to overcome and to achieve, not to go on vacation. Yitchak, on the other hand, was asking for something perfectly legitimate. He was doing exactly what he should have been doing, and his tefilla was a good tefillah. So his tefillos were answered, for better or for worse.
Does this sound reasonable to you? Is that really how tefilla works? Doesn't the passuk in Mishlei 10:22 say בִּרְכַּת יְהוָה הִיא תַעֲשִׁיר וְלֹא יוֹסִף עֶצֶב עִמָּהּ.? Not for nothing is this website described as "divrei Torah that require some thought." In any case, it seems that tefilla is a gamble, which I find very hard to believe. I'll get back to this later.
The first time I heard this idea was in a discussion with the Mirrer talmid Harav David Zupnik Zatzal. In Ashrei, we say "Retzon yerei'av ya'aseh, ve'es shavasam yishma veyoshi'eim." Reb Tzvi Pesach Frank, in the first teshuva in OC (to explain the Bach that says you should say the parsha of Korban Chatas, but don't say the Yehi Ratzon unless you know you actually did an aveira, because if you didn't, it will be chulin ba'azara,) says he saw somewhere that pshat is that Hashem listens to the tefillos of those that fear him; and after the tefilla is answered, after Retzon yerei'av ya'aseh and the wish is granted , and the supplicant realizes that what he got was bad for him, and he now prays "Ribono shel olam, please take away what you gave me!", then Hashem does that, too- ve'es shavasam yishma veyoshi'eim, Hashem listens to their cry and saves them. (So the pshat in the Bach is that if you say the Yehi Ratzon, and you weren't chayav a korban, then you're in trouble, because the result of your tefilla is "Ke'ilu Hikriv Chatas" whether it's good for you or bad for you, and since you weren't chayav a chatas, you are stuck with chulin ba'azara that you created through your wrongheaded tefilla.)
I found that the Brisker Rov brings the same thing from Reb Chaim in the stencil on Tanach, in Tehillim #145, with a little extra kneitch from Reb Chaim (that there are three dinim. If the supplicant is a tzadik and can reverse the effect of his tefilla, like Choni Hame'agel who said thanks, that's enough rain, Hashem, then Hashem gives him what he wants. If he is sort of a tzadik, who deserves an answer, but couldn't reverse the negative effects of the answer, Hashem doesn't answer him at all. If he's a lower person, Hashem says Fine, have what you want, and see what's going to happen to you.) Maybe this is where Reb Tzvi Pesach Frank heard it. But did it really stem from Reb Chaim?
A couple of years later, Rabbi Zupnik found the makor of this idea from long before Reb Chaim. He showed me that it actually comes from R’ Shlomo Kluger’s pirush on the siddur, יריעות שלמה, found in the R’ Yakov Emden siddur, in the first Ashrei in Shachris. RS'K says that this is (Taanis 25a) what happened to R’ Chanina Ben Dosa. He asked to be saved from his crushing poverty, and got the golden leg of a table from his house in Olam Haba. When he explained to his wife asked what the cost was, she insisted that Reb Chanina be mispallel that the table leg be taken back- ve'es shavasam yishma veyoshi'eim- and, in a doubled miracle, it was taken back to Olam Haba (just like the story (Taanis 23a) of Choni Ha'me'agel.)
Also, there is the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b and 103b, and Rashi there) that Moshe asked Hashem, how can You allow so many babies to be cemented into the Egyptian walls, and Hashem said, take one of them out. That one smuggled the Pesel Michah across the Yam suf. Again, Moshe's tefilla was answered. He saved that one child, but, as it turned out, at a terrible price.
After some thought, I realized that to say that tefilla is a gamble- that sometimes Hashem grants our wish even when it's bad for us- is just too absurd to accept. (Maybe Tzadik gozer works that way. But I just can't see tefilla working like a mechanical vending machine. This is a question of Hashkafa, and it's very possible that I'm wrong, and if it turns out that I'm wrong, I apologize, but for the moment, I can't swallow such an idea.) The point of tefilla is to elicit Rachamei Hashem and to be given what's good for us. We're not ganovim asking Hashem that our break-in be successful (Brachos 63a in the Ein Yaakov). (When I say I might be wrong, I'm not just being flippant. It may be that there are two kinds of tefilla- regular tefilla, and insisting in the style of Choni. Or, it may be that tefilla is just another form of hishtadlus. Obviously, hishtadlus to get something that's bad for you works, so maybe tefilla can do the same thing. If this makes sense to you, G-d bless you. That's why Hashem made chocolate and vanilla. These ideas don't appeal to me.) So what's pshat in Reb Chaim and Reb Shlomo Kluger?
Pshat is like we see in Birchas Kohanim: Yevarechecha, and veyishmerecah; Ya'eir, and vichuneka; Yisa, and ve'yaseim lecha shalom. Every bracha increases some risk, and every bracha is formulated as (A1) Hashem will give, and (A2). Hashem will guard. Sometimes, the risk is simply that the bracha will be lost. Sometimes, the risk is that the bracha will result in Vayishman Yeshurun Vayiv'aht. Sometimes the risk is the jealousy the bracha engenders. Sometimes the risk is tza'ar gidul banim. The point is that when a person gets a bracha, his responsibilities increase as well, and he has to mindful of those responsibilities. Theoretically, Yitzchak could have raised Eisav in a way that would have kept him from going off. No doubt it would have been very difficult, but it was possible, as the Medrash says (beginning of Shemos, כיוצא בו (בראשית כה) ויאהב יצחק את עשו, לפיכך יצא לתרבות רעה על אשר לא רידהו) and as Rav Hirsch discusses. If having a children would actually have been bad for Yitzchak, I don't believe that Hashem would have answered his tefillos. The yesod of tefilla is Rachamim, to get what is good for you from the Baal Harachamim, not to get what you're asking for. If a diabetic father begs his son for a jelly doughnut, there's no mitzva of Kibbud Av to give him the doughnut that will put him into shock (Beis Lechem Yehuda YD 240:15) Does it make sense that such a diabetic's beautiful and sincere tefilla for a jelly doughnut would be answered, or that an addict's prayer for heroin would be answered? Not to me it doesn't.
Another point: This Rashi, and the idea of tefilla having risks, might seem to be in direct opposition to the story of Chizkiyahu and Yeshayahu and Menashe (Melachim II 20, Brachos 10a bottom of page). There, Chizkiahu knew that having a child would bring all kinds of tzaros and would undo all the good he had done, so he didn't want to get married. Yeshayahu told him that the future is none of his business: he had a responsibility to father a child, and he had no right to adjust his behavior on the basis of foreknowledge. According to that, Yitzchak was right to ask and keep asking, despite the future cost to Avraham Avinu. Does the story of Chizkiahu contradict the lesson of Yitzchak? No, it doesn't. I'll leave it to you to think about. I'm not Artscroll or the Chidushei Basra.
The moral of the story is that when we are mispallel, we should always have in mind that we only want the thing we pray for if it is ultimately for our good, that we should have siyata dishmaya to properly handle the responsibilities that come with the bracha. I have a good friend that has decided that the reason he has remained poor is because Hashem knows that he would not handle the nisayon of wealth well. The thing is, many of us are willing to take the chance: "Hashem, make me fantastically wealthy, because even though I know it's risky, I'm willing to give the nisayon of wealth a try." But the truth is, that's not how we should daven. We should say, Hashem, give me bracha and hatzlacha, but only if it's not "yatza scharo be'hefseido."
After some thought, I decided that there's a simpler approach.
There are two kinds of tefilla; tachana and insisting. Tefilla le'ani ki ya'atof is an example of the former. Choni Hame'agel is an example of the latter. I think that the former cannot ever be counterproductive. The latter, however, might be. You insist? Well, then, there you go. Enjoy it. The only reason I hesitate is because I don't want to say that Yitzchak's tefilla was less than perfect.
Lehavdil elef havdalos, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) once said:
"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."
(As for the story about the Chasam Sofer, I'm not an expert in the Chasam Sofer, but I've read enough of his Torah to have an opinion. My opinion is that the essence of the story is no doubt true, but I don't believe it was as harsh as it was said over. I don't believe he said that the woman should suffer yesurei gehenom because he saw something beru'ach hakodesh. I also don't believe he went around touting his Ruach Hakodesh. He may have said that the proper tefilla is that she should not have yesurim, but not that the birth should be faster than Hashem intended.)
This was originally posted in 2010. I thank commentators Chaim B., LkwdGuy, and Mordechai Cohen, whose contributions and criticism are a large part of the final form of this post.