In this week’s Parsha the Torah describes the story of Sedom’s destruction. As the evildoing of Sedom reached its tipping-point, Hashem decides to destroy Sedom. Prior to carrying out this decree, Hashem decides to inform Avraham of his decision. Upon learning of Sedom’s imminent destruction, Avraham Avinu begins to pray on behalf of the people of Sedom, only giving up after Hashem informed him that there were no righteous people in Sedom at all.
This, of course, was not Avraham Avinu’s first encounter with Sedom and its people. In Parshas Lech Lecha, when splitting up from his nephew, Chazal explain that Lot’s choice of going to Sedom, was not merely a coincidence, rather both, he and Avraham, were well aware of the ‘good nature’ of Sedom’s residents. Avraham had a second encounter with Sedom and its people when he went to battle to save them. Evidently Avraham was well aware of Sedom’s evil nature.
One can only wonder, why did Avraham Avinu intercede on behalf of Sedom, attempting to overturn Hashem’s decision to eradicate this most corrupt of places and people? How is it that Avraham Avinu, the living embodiment of righteousness and loving-kindness was interceding on behalf of Sodom – the archetypical evildoers? Is there a reason for praying on behalf of evil people? What was he praying for? Should all righteous people pray for evildoers?
To pray for Reshaim – Mitzvah
The Zohar (Midrash Hanelam Vayeira) quotes Rebbi, that there is a mitzvah to pray for the welfare of evildoers, so they can repent. Further the Zohar points out that one should never pray for the death of a rasha, for had Terach died as a result of his idol worship, Avraham Avinu would not have been born, and there would be no Klal Yisrael. (The Zohar concludes, that Sedom was only destroyed, after Hashem confirmed that there was no future descendant, for whom it should be spared.)
This would imply, that one should pray on behalf of reshaim, and that the purpose of Avraham’s prayer on behalf of Sedom, was to give them a second chance, so that they could repent. This idea is echoed in the Midrash Tanchuma (Veyeira – Buber), that Avraham wished to save them, thinking that they would repent.
R’ Moshe Feinstein (Drash Moshe Vayeira) explains that Avraham Avinu, asked for Sedom to be spared in the merit of at least 10 Tzadikim, because even a small number of righteous people can influence many to repent and mend their ways.
Similarly, the Zohar (Noach) criticizes Noach for failing to pray on behalf of his generation and for being content that he and his family would be spared the flood. (Rabbeinu Bachye in Parshas Noach takes the view that Noach did not pray on behalf of his generation, because he recognized that there were too few people in whose merit the world could be saved. Just as Avraham Avinu terminated his prayers for Sedom when he realized that there fewer than 10 tzadikim, so too Noach realized that he and his family were not enough. Rabbeinu Bachye maintains that Noach would have prayed for his generation had there been 10 tzadikim and that it is the duty of a leader to pray on behalf of his generation.)
It would seem, however, that the question of whether one should pray for reshaim is the subject of a dispute among the Tanaim.
Sins or Sinners
The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (23b) relates that during an extended drought a delegation was sent to ask the great tzaddik Abba Chilkiya to pray for rain. Abba Chilkiya preempted their request by going up with his wife to the rooftop to pray for rain. The members of the delegation asked him to explain certain things about his conduct, concluding with the question, why did the rain clouds begin to gather from the corner that his wife had prayed from. Abba Chilkiya responded that she was more worthy of having her prayers answered because of her approach to dealing with sinners. Whereas he had prayed for their demise, she had prayed for them to repent.
A similar story is told in Maseches Brachos (10a) where Rabbi Meir prayed for the demise of his wicked neighbors and his wife, Bruria, told him that he should not pray for them to die rather that they should repent. To support her assertion, Bruria pointed out that the pasuk in Tehilim does not say Yitamu Chotim, meaning that sinners should be eliminated, rather is says Yitamu Chataim, meaning that the sins would be eliminated when the sinners repent.
R’ Akiva Eigar (Brachos 10) cites the above-mentioned Zohar as a source for praying for a sinner to repent.
Nevertheless, these two episodes seem to indicate that there is another side to the question of whether one should pray for a rasha. The Midrash in Tehillim 104 (Shochar Tov) points out, that the dispute between R’ Meir and Bruria is, in fact, a dispute between R’ Yehuda and R’ Nechemia.
Bechira – free will
A fundamental question regarding praying for someone else to repent is raised by the Maharsha (Brachos 10a). The Maharsha points out that sinning and repenting are at the core of a person’s bechira – free will, and praying for someone to repent essentially is like asking Hashem to remove that person’s free will. The Maharsha notes that Chazal stated that “everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of Heaven” for this precise reason. The Maharsha does not object to a person praying and asking Hashem to help him repent himself, because such a prayer in itself is a manifestation of a person’s own free will. (The Rambam (Tshuva 6) seems to suggest that a person can not even pray for his own repentance and that one can only ask Hashem that one’s sins not interfere in his teshuva.)
The Maharsha’s question is the basis for Rabbi Yonah Lansdorfer’s (Meil Tzdaka 7) rejection of the premise that one can pray for someone else to repent. He explains that although a person can request divine assistance for himself to repent, one cannot do so for others, unless one is praying that a young child repent (since he has no free will and he had no education he is categorized as a tinok shenishba). He also explains that a person can pray for his own child, since Chazal see the son as an extension of the father, as the son’s actions can benefit the father after the father’s death – ‘Bra Mezake Abba’, therefore the father’s prayers are really for himself.
Regarding R’ Meir praying for his neighbors, the Meil Tzdaka maintains, that his prayers were designed to benefit himself because he was suffering from their behavior.
R’ Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC 4 40 13) seems to adopt the position of the Maharsha that one cannot pray for others to repent and he explains that R’ Meir (Brachos 10a) was praying that Hashem should send someone to ‘influence the sinners so that they repent.
Nevertheless, there are many sources that a person is able, and even obligated, to pray that sinners should repent. The Sefer Chasidim (688, 749) as well as the Sefer Chareidim (68) Kav Hayashar (5) and Tomer Dvora (2) mention that it is a mitzva to pray for the sinners to repent. Mesilas Yesharim (19) counts praying for the sinners as one of the duties of the righteous. The Ohr Hachaim (Bereishis 17 18) explains that Avraham Avinu prayed that his son Yishmael should repent. Avnei Nezer (Choshen Mishpat 149) adopts the position that one is obligated to pray for the sinners as does Mishneh Halachos (6 27). A special prayer was composed by the Arizal to ask Hashem to return to the fold those that, unfortunately, left the faith.
A possible resolution to the Maharsha’s question regarding bechira is offered by Mishmar Halveiim (Brachos 17) based on a principle stated by the Chazon Ish (notes on Chumash printed as an addendum to Taharos) whose yahrtzeit was commemorated this week. The Chazon Ish points out that Hashem allows people to make their own choices and thus man has control over his decisions, this is called bechira. This free will does not preclude one person from forcing or tempting another to do something, and the resulting action is considered made with free will. Although the person who was coerced into the action did not exercise his free will, nonetheless the person choosing to coerce his fellow made that decision of his own free will. The principle of Arvus views all Jews as being responsible for one another, acting as parts of a whole. Thus, if a person forces or convinces his fellow Jew to do a good deed, it is considered by Hashem as though the act was done completely voluntarily.
Using this principle, we can view the prayer for a sinner as though the person praying is forcing the hand of the sinner to repent, it is not Hashem interfering with a person’s bechira because Hashem is only acting on behalf of the person praying who is exercising his bechira by praying on behalf of the sinner.
The prayer of Velamalshinim
The notion of praying for the welfare of sinners and asking that they repent seems to contradict one of the brachos of the Shemoneh Esreh.
In the bracha of Velamalshinim we seem to be asking for the complete and total eradication of evil and wicked people. Why did Shmuel Hakatan, the author of the Shemoneh Esreh, not compose a bracha praying for the wicked to repent. Various approaches have been put forward to reconcile this bracha with the view that one should pray for the salvation and repentance of the wicked.
Rabenu Manoach (Tfila 2 1) asks this question and gives two possible answers: The first explaining that the bracha was composed only for those that pose a danger to klal Yisrael. The second answer is: The purpose of the bracha was not to condemn the wicked for eternity, rather its purpose is to inform the public that associating with evil can and will cause a person to suffer in both this world and the next.
Both of these approaches accept that it is far better to pray for the wicked to repent than to wish for their demise.
The Maharal (Beer Hagolah 7 6) addresses this problem by interpreting the bracha to mean as follows: We pray to Hashem that evil and wickedness be eradicated not through the demise of the wicked but through their repentance, so that their status as wicked beings is eliminated, as they no longer can be considered wicked. This bracha, according to the Maharal, is a request and prayer asking Hashem to compel the wicked and evil to repent, thereby removing and eradicating evil and wickedness from this world.
Through the generations countless Tzadikim have prayed on behalf of all members of Klal Yisrael, both righteous and sinners, all following in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu.
We must learn from Avraham Avinu not give up on any Jew, no matter how distant he is from Hashem and the Jewish people.