Calls for prayer are published daily. Coronavirus patients, cancer, accidents… the public needs your prayers. This article will discuss the various aspects of praying for others – is it an obligation or just a recommended practice? And who is included in the obligation – should prayers be offered for non-righteous individuals as well as righteous? In this week’s parashah, we read of Noach’s failure to express care for his generation’s failings and its catastrophic results. Why was Noach accused for not praying for his people?
After the Flood, Noach offered sacrifices and prayed that there would never again be a flood. Why didn’t he offer them before the Flood to prevent it?
Psychologist Nathaniel Lambert of Florida State University conducted a study where subjects were asked to pray just once for the welfare of someone they feel hostility towards. The results showed that even one prayer was normally enough to take away vengeful thoughts and emotions and create forgiveness. Could this be a reason to refrain from praying for the wicked? And How does one pray for a bothersome individual? Is there a difference between praying for a Jew and an idol-worshiper? Of this and more in the coming article.
Calls for Tefilla – the Obligation
This week’s parashah tells of the Flood that erased all life from the face of the earth, and the miraculous saving of the only family of tzaddikim in that generation – Noach’s.
Refraining from Prayer
In Yeshayahu 54:9 we read: “For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noach, as I swore that the waters of Noach shall never again pass over the earth…”. The Zohar (Noach 67b; Vayikra 14a) explains that the Flood is named for Noach because he is considered the cause of it – he should have prayed for the people of his generation.
The Zohar quotes a conversation that took place between Noach and Hashem:
“And G-d said to Noach, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth’.” (Bereshis 6:13).
“What will be with me?” asked Noach.
Hashem answered: “And I will set up My covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you and your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you” (Bereshis 6:18).
Once Noach heard that his family would be spared from the Flood, he relaxed and did not pray the decree would be cancelled. Therefore, the Flood is named for him.
The Zohar continues and contrasts Noach’s reaction with that of Moshe. When Hashem said to Moshe: “Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation” (Shemot 32:10), although promised to be spared, and even more so – to be made into a great nation – Moshe put his life on the line for his people. He answered: “And now, if You forgive their sin, but if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written” (Shemot 32:32).
Therefore, the Zohar explains, when he left the tieva, Noach is called “…A master of the soil…” (Bereshis 9:20). Noach became chulin, a man of the earth. He was of a lower spiritual stature because due to his lack of prayer the earth was ruined.
The Zohar then continues and offers a contradicting explanation of the same passuk: “And Noach began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard” (Bereshis 9:20). “A master of soil” – the earth is named for him, because through his prayer and sacrifices that he offered after the Flood Hashem said: “And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, ‘I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done’ ” (Bereshis 8:21). His prayers were answered and the earth is henceforth safe in his merit. And so, he is called “A master of soil.”
Another example of intercessory prayer appears when Avraham prayed for the residents of Sodom. They were indeed wicked, but the Midrash writes (Midrash Raba, Vayikra, chapter 10, 247:1): “You loved righteousness and you hated wickedness; therefore G-d, your G-d, annointed you with oil of joy from among your peers” (Tehilim 45:8). Because you loved my creatures and tried to vindicate them and hated to criticize them, therefore I chose you over your friends. Of the ten generations from Noach until your times I spoke to no one, but You. Although there were righteous people like Shem and Ever, Hashem only spoke with Avraham.
Praying for the Wicked
Why was Noach criticized for failing to pray for his generation if they were responsible for corrupting their ways? Shouldn’t we preferably distance ourselves from the wicked and despise them?
This question was asked by the infuriated Yonah Hanavi, after the people of Nineveh corrected their ways and escaped their impending fate. Enraged, he exclaimed: “And now, O Lord, take now my soul from me, for my death is better than my life” (Yonah 4:3). Hashem’s reply and explanation came in an experiential form: Yonah was provided with a fast-growing kikayon which provided him with life-saving shade. The next day, a worm came and killed that overnight plant. In the dry, easterly wind and blistering sun, Yonah fainted and willed himself to die again. The message then sank in: “And G-d said to Yonah; ‘Are you very grieved about the kikayon?’ And he said, ‘I am very grieved, even to death.’ And the Lord said: ‘You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished. Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?'” (Yonah 4:9-11).
The pain of useless work, of a lost investment, is one of the most agonizing experiences. When the Egyptian sank in the Sea of Reeds, the angels were silenced. Hashem said: “The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs?” This indicates that G-d does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked (Maseches Megillah 10b). As a practical application of this feeling, we don’t recite the full Halel on last days of Pesach (Beis Yosef, Orech Chayim 490:4). This allows us a glimpse of G-d figurative “agony” when his creatures are lost. It is the pain of waste, of toil in vain. As G-d’s representatives on earth we are charged with the obligation to share in G-d’s figurative “pain” and pray for all of His creatures.
Elsewhere in the Gemara (Maseches Brachos 7a) we find a story of a min who would continuously upset Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Rabbi Yehoshua knew there was one moment in which Hashem is, figuratively, angry. This instant occurs when the cock’s red comb turns momentarily white. If one curses at that exact moment the curse generates the desired effect. Rabbi Yehoshua wanted to take advantage of this moment and curse the min. He stood in front of a rooster and waited, but at the opportune moment Rabbi Yehoshua dozed off, and the moment passed. Rabbi Yehoshua saw this as a heavenly sign that cursing was inappropriate, as the passuk says: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are on all His works” (Tehilim 145:9).
The Ba’al Ha’akeida writes (Bamidbar, Sha’ar 82): “Tzaddikim quake at the evils that befall the nations despite having [the nations] sinned, as it is written about Hashem: ‘Do I desire the death of the wicked?’ says the Lord G-d. ‘Is it not rather in his repenting of his ways that he may live?’ (Yechezkel 18:23).”
Even the mitzva of eradicating Amalek, the nation that caused most ruin and evil in the world, does not require a blessing. Rabbi Chayim Palagi (Yafe Lalev volume 3, Orech Chayim 685:3); Maharam Schick (Orech Chayim 336) and Kaf Hachayim (Orech Chayim 685:29) explain that this mitzva includes spoiling and ruination of G-d’s creatures, and as such – no blessing is offered for it.
As G-d’s chosen nation we are charged with working for the entire world’s correction. We pray that G-d will rejoice with His creatures as the passuk writes: “The glory of the Lord will be forever; the Lord will rejoice with His works” (Tehilim 104:31). And as such, we are obligated to feel the pain of G-d’s creatures who sinned and are punished, and pray they be saved and do teshuva.
The Torah trains humankind in every detail of the delicate feeling of empathy, for every creature of the world (See Rav Hirsch’s commentary on the mitzvos of shiluach haken, baser bechalav, not slaughtering an animal and is offspring, and more). So much so, that although one recites “Shehecheyanu” on every first-time mitzva, for the mitzva of shechita one does not recite “Shehecheyanu” since it involves taking a life (Rama, Yore Deah 28:2). Similarly, one does not wish his friend “may you use and wear out” (tevale v’titchadesh) for new shoes as one does for clothing, because new shoes and production of leather involve the death of an animal, and we do not wish each other such wishes (Rama, Orech Chayim 223:6).
Degrees of Prayer
The Gemara explains that different levels of prayer are required depending on whom prayer is for.
For a talmid chacham one is required to pray until he himself becomes ill (Maseches Brachos 12b). This lesson is learned from David Hamelech who wrote in Tehilim (35:13): “But, as for me, when they were ill, my attire was sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting, and may my prayer return upon my bosom”. This passuk refers to David’s prayer for his ill enemies – who were also heads of the Sanhedrin, to whom despite their hatred for him, he responded with kindness. The Malbim explains that although when he was ill they rejoiced and awaited his death, when they were ill – he prayed for them and fasted for their health. This was all done in private, without publicizing his prayer for his enemies. And this he did, not once, but many times over.
Dovid Hamelech teaches us here that one should pray for a talmid chacham, even if he is his arch enemy. And to what extent? Until falling ill from prayer.
A second level of prayer is mentioned in the Gemara (ibid): prayer for every Jewish person. “Rabba bar Ḥinnana Sava said in the name of Rav: Anyone who can ask for mercy on behalf of another, and does not ask is called a sinner, as it is stated following Shmuel’s rebuke of the people: ‘As for me, far be it from me that I should transgress against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you, but I will teach you the good and the right way’ (Shmuel I 12:23). Had Shmuel refrained from prayer, he would have committed a sin.” One who can pray for his fellow and does not is called a sinner.
A third degree is prayer for the entire world, even the sinners. This is, indeed, not a full obligation, and one who refrains from it is not a sinner. Noach was still a tzadik tamim despite not having prayed for his people and being blamed for the Flood.
An added aspect of prayer for others is found in the Gemara (Bava Kama 92a):
“And Avraham prayed to G-d; and G-d healed Avimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants, and they bore children” (Bereshis 20:17), and it is written immediately following that: “And the Lord remembered Sarah, as He had said” (Bereshis 21:1), “As he had said” is interpreted homiletically: As Avraham said regarding Avimelech. Because Avraham prayed for Avimelech that the women of his household should give birth, Avraham himself was answered concerning that matter. Even for the non-Jewish king Avimelech who harmed Avraham, after praying for him — Avraham was saved from his own plight, and Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak. Praying for another has the power to bring salvation to the person who is praying.
Noach Refrained from Prayer – Why?
The Zohar (Noach 68a) quotes a dispute between the Tano’im as to why Noach didn’t offer sacrifices and pray for the people of his generation before the mabul. Rabbi Yitzchak interprets it negatively – perhaps had he prayed he would have been successful and prevented the Flood. But Rabbi Yehuda opines that Noach was afraid for himself – he was afraid that if he would pray for them he would be lost along with them.
To explain his fear, the Mizrachi (Bereshis 7:9) explains the difference between Noach and Avraham. Noach was afraid to get to close to his fellow men out of fear from learning from their behavior. He felt his faith in Hashem was not strong enough. Noach would seclude himself in private places called “Places of Hashem”. Avraham, though, was strong in his emuna. He was not afraid that he would learn from the evil people of his generation, on the contrary, he befriended them and taught them about Hashem and His service.
This difference can serve us as a lesson – one who feels that prayer and empathy for the wicked will cause a detrimental relationship that will ultimately weaken his emuna is recommended to keep his distance and refrain from praying for them so as not to be lost along with them. But one who feels strong enough to connect with and befriend those who are far from Yiddishkeit in order to bring them closer to Hashem and the Torah, is obligated to do so.
The Mabit (Beis Elokim, Sha’ar Hayesodot, chapter 43) provides a different explanation why Noach refrained from praying for the people of his generation. Noach was, according to he Mabit, unsure that his piety and spiritual stature would suffice to save the people of his generation. This apprehension, though was unfounded. Just as his prayers that there would never again be a Flood were accepted, and he was granted the Rainbow Covenant, so too, he had the power to save his generation from the Flood.
Noach did not refrain from praying for his people because of indifference – on the contrary – he spent 120 years of his life building the Ark and persuading them to change their ways while they mocked him relentlessly (Sanhedrin 108b). However, the Mabit writes that Noach felt unworthy of being answered. This was, according to the Mabit, the great quality of the Avos – they had faith in Hashem that their prayers would be accepted despite their humility and piety.
For prayer to create the desired effect, approach is the key word. At the end of every Amidah prayer we ask Hashem “And then the offerings of Yeudah and Yerushalayim shall be pleasant to the Lord, as in the days of old and former years” (Malachi 3:4). The Midrash (Eicha Raba chapter 5:21) explains what the offerings of “the days of old” and “the former years” were — those were the sacrifices and prayers of Noach and Hevel, when there still was no idol-worship in the world.
We owe our existence to Noach’s prayer and the convent that resulted. And how were those prayers executed?
After the mabul, Hashem told Noach to exit the teiva and begin building a new world. The Midrash (Bereshis Raba chapter 34:6) describes Noach’s distress – the world as he had known it, was gone. “How can I exit the Ark and rebuild the world if it will all be ruined again?” he asked. He was afraid everything would again go up in billowing steam and torrents of water. And so, he prayed and spoke, till Hashem agreed to the Covenant of the Rainbow – Hashem promised to never again bring a flood on the world. Noach, despite his lack of faith in the power of his prayers, when charged with rebuilding the world and feeling the paralyzing fear that everything he builds will be destroyed once again – achieved the requisite level of prayer that ensured the world continuance.
One who feels a difficulty in praying for another, needs to first own the problem. His friend’s pain should be painted in his mind as if it was his own. Then, his prayer will achieve results.
When Moshe Rabenu prayed for the Jewish Nation he said, “And now, if You forgive their sin. But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written” (Shemos 32:32). He made their problem his own, and his prayers were accepted.
Praying for Others
The Mabit (Beis Elokim, Sha’ar Hatefila, chapter 12) explains an additional merit in praying for another. Prayer for another person is an altruistic act — praying for another’s needs it is a wholehearted prayer for Hashem’s mercy and nothing else. One who prays for himself has the ulterior motive — to ease his own pain, to make his own life easier, more pleasant. But when praying for another, one’s only intention is to bring joy to Hashem with his Creatures. Then, his own needs, too, are taken care of.
Prayer for the Wicked
The Gemara (Brachos 10a) recounts a discussion between Rabbi Meir and his wise wife, Bruria. There were several hooligans who continuously harassed him, and Rabbi Meir wanted to pray for their death. Bruria, though, disagreed with him. She told him: “The passuk in Tehilim reads, ‘Sins will be eradicated from the earth and the wicked will be no more…’ (Tehilim 104:35). We pray that the sins will be destroyed, not the sinners. We hope for the day that the sinful stop sinning and repent, not call for death of sinners.” Rabbi Meir accepted her opinion and prayed that the brutes repent – and they did.
We learn in this week’s parashah that Noach is criticized for refraining from praying for the people of his generation, despite their wickedness. Even if we are, at times, required to annihilate Yisroel’s foes, it is not a time of joy. One is required to feel the pain of loss of Hashem creatures and the ache of a lost opportunity. Even death of an animal is a reason for discomfort.
One is charged with praying for the world’s correction — that Hashem rejoice with all His creatures, and the wicked — repent.
Praying for others is given 3 different levels of preference:
For a talmid chacham, even one with whom one has an acute dispute, one is required to pray until falling ill.
One is required to pray for every Jewish person in need, and refraing from it is a sin.
Praying for non-Jews is commendable, but one who refrains from praying for them is not a sinner. One who has a real fear of developing an emotional connection with the wicked through his prayer should refrain from praying for them.
Prayer is an exercise in faith – bitachon in Hashem, Who will surely listen and accept the prayers despite having insufficient maa’sim tovim. Every prayer is beloved and heard.