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3 Elul 5765 - September 7, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Teshuvoh and Prayer

by HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt"l

Part I

The Rambam writes: "It is possible for a person to commit a sin, or many sins, until he gives his account before the True Judge, and that the punishment for these sins, committed of his own volition and knowledge, is to prevent him from doing teshuvoh and to deny him permission to undo his wickedness, in order that he will die and be destroyed because of the sins he committed. That is what HaKodosh Boruch Hu said through Yeshayohu, `The heart of this people became fat . . . '

"Similarly, it says, `But they mocked the messengers of Hashem, and despised his words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of Hashem arose against His people, till there was no remedy.' In other words, they sinned of their own free will, increasing their transgressions, until they were punished by having the possibility of teshuvoh taken away from them — teshuvoh which constitutes the remedy." (Hilchos Teshuvoh 6:3).

What is to happen to those people who have been prevented from doing teshuvoh? Is there really no hope left for someone who has been sentenced to the punishment of losing the ability to undo past wrongs? Has he already been cut off from the land of the living, chas vesholom, without the slightest chance of salvation?

Doing Teshuvoh Even after a Gezeiroh Preventing It — Via Tefilloh

If we consider the matter further, we will find that the Rambam himself suggests a way out. These are his golden words in Halochoh 4: "In a similar vein, righteous people and prophets ask Hashem in their prayers to help them find the truth, as Dovid said: `Teach me Your way, Hashem,' meaning, let not my sins prevent me from perceiving the way of truth, through which I will know your ways and the unification of your Name.

"Similarly, he said, `Let a willing spirit uphold me,' meaning: Allow my spirit to do Your Will, and do not let my transgressions be the cause of preventing me from doing teshuvoh. Rather, let me keep my free choice until I return, when I will understand and know the way of truth. Other similar pesukim are to be interpreted in the same fashion."

It is obvious that the Rambam is not referring to tzaddikim who pray that they should not commit any sins which will cause them to lose the possibility of teshuvoh, since he writes, "Do not let my transgressions be the cause of preventing me from doing teshuvoh, but let me keep my free choice." Thus the prayer, "let a willing spirit uphold me," is referring to sins which have already been committed. Dovid Hamelech fears that sins committed by him may already, chas vesholom, have resulted in the prevention of teshuvoh. He therefore asks Hashem that his freedom to choose to do teshuvoh not be taken away.

We may well ask how tzaddikim who fear that they may have reached the stage where a verdict has been made preventing them from doing teshuvoh, chas vesholom, can expect to overturn a Divine Law. How can their prayers be of any avail if the Divine punishment for such sinners is the removal of the permission to return?

On the other hand, if they have not committed such sins, what is the point of their prayer?

In truth however, this presents no difficulty. The Rambam's ruling is only that the punishment for such sins is the inability to repent, meaning that the sentence passed on such a person is the prevention of teshuvoh, in order that he may die and be lost because of his transgression. However this decree is no different from any other evil decree. All hope is not yet lost of finding ways to overturn the decree, of finding favor in Hashem's eyes that He may have pity on him — either through charity, through crying out, or by means of several other suggestions made by Chazal, which are effective in overturning the evil decree made against a person!

This sinner too, even though the True Judge has decreed that he be prevented from doing teshuvoh, nevertheless if he will pray and beseech Hashem from the depths of his heart to help him to repent, this can overturn this terrible punishment of the prevention of teshuvoh, causing him to return to Hashem, Who will have pity on him, so that he may return to our G-d, for He is full of forgiveness.

Eliyohu and the Prophets of Baal — The Effect of Prayer

This can shed light on a difficult matter in the story of Eliyohu and the prophets of Baal.

The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:9) describes how the cow which had been taken by the prophets of Baal for their sacrifice did not want to go, and opened its mouth to speak to Eliyohu in front of the whole Jewish people. They were unable to make it move from its place until Eliyohu told it to go with them, for Hashem's Name would also be sanctified through it. That made the cow move.

However, this was not enough to make the Jewish people recognize Hashem; that only happened afterwards, when a heavenly fire descended upon the altar and the whole nation fell on their faces shouting, "Hashem is G-d!"

The sequence of events seems strange. The whole nation saw clearly that Hashem is G-d, before the descent of the heavenly fire, when they witnessed the incident of the cow, which contained awesome miracles. What then, were they waiting for? Why, upon seeing these miracles, did they not immediately cry out, "Hashem is G-d!"?

The answer is found in the Rambam, who brings as an example of those who have the possibility of teshuvoh taken away from them the Jewish people in the days of Eliyohu, "who committed many sins, therefore the possibility of repentance was taken away from those who were full of transgressions, as it says, `For You have turned their heart backward,' meaning: You have prevented them from repenting" (Ibid. halocho 3). This explains why they did not repent and declare Hashem's sovereignty when they witnessed the miracles with the cow, since a Heavenly decree had been enacted preventing them from doing teshuvoh!

Afterwards however, they did repent, and recognized that "Hashem is G-d," because Eliyohu Hanovi, when making his altar, prayed, "Answer me, Hashem, answer me." His prayer was that the people should repent (according to the gemora, he davened that events should not be attributed to witchcraft, so that they would recognize Hashem and repent), and indeed, his prayer was effective and the people repented!

The Extent of Tefilloh's Powers!

The extent of the power of tefilloh can be seen from Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Ovos (1:2), where he cites Dovid Hamelech's request in Tehillim (51:17), which we now recite as an introduction to every Amidoh prayer, "Hashem, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise."

It is well-known that prayer is a substitute for a korbon. However, tefilloh is actually much more effective than a sacrifice! A korbon only atones for sins committed unwittingly, but as for intentional sins, "the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination!" Tefilloh, by way of contrast, atones even for sins committed intentionally!

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that this is what Dovid said in the perek which starts with, "A mizmor of Dovid; when Nosson the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bas- Sheva," "Ribono Shel Olom, even though I sinned intentionally and not unwittingly, still I am praying!" That is why Dovid had to preface a special request, "Hashem, open my lips . . . "

We too, before starting our Amidoh, ask Hashem to accept our prayers even though we have sinned intentionally! This is a very remarkable thing and many people are unaware of it! Here we have an example of the power of tefilloh, which effects atonement even for intentional sins and even in a situation where a korbon is not effective.

We may then be certain that prayer has the power to help even someone who has committed many transgressions, and upon whom it has been decreed that he can no longer repent. Through tefilloh, his teshuvoh will be accepted!

The Power of Tefilloh

Another incident which made me feel the potential of tefilloh is when HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to Moshe, after the sin of the Eigel (Devorim 9:14), "Let Me alone, that I may destroy them," and Moshe kevayochol grabbed onto HaKodosh Boruch Hu by means of his prayer — not allowing Him to destroy the people! Admittedly, this was the tefilloh of Moshe Rabbeinu, but still, this gives us an idea of the power of prayer!

I also found a Medrash Rabbah (Eichoh 3:60) on the posuk (3:44), "You have covered Yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through." Says the Medrash, "Rabbi Akiva was standing in judgment before Turnusrufus. Yehoshua Hagarsi was also standing there with him, praying. A cloud descended and surrounded them. He said, `It seems to me that the only reason this cloud has descended and surrounded us, is to prevent my master's prayer from being heard!' This is written in the posuk, `You have covered Yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through.' "

Prayer, then, can penetrate the heavens, to the extent that heaven found it necessary to "defend" itself with a cloud, so that no prayer could kevayochol be heard.

Tefilloh With and Without Proper Kavonoh — Life and Death

What type of prayer has the power to penetrate heaven? Tefilloh coupled with the necessary concentration and devotion! I heard the following in the name of HaGaon Hatzaddik HaRav Eliyohu Lopian zt"l:

The gemora says in Rosh Hashonoh (18a), "Rabbi Meir says, `Two people take to their bed suffering equally from the same disease, or two people ascend the scaffold to be punished for the same offense; yet one gets up and the other does not, one escapes death and the other does not. Why does one get up and the other not? Why does one escape death and the other not? Because one prayed and was answered and the other prayed and was not answered. Why was one answered and the other not? One prayed a perfect prayer and was therefore answered. The other did not pray a perfect prayer and was not answered.' " Rashi says that a perfect prayer is one prayed with devotion.

It is clear from the gemora that neither of them had any merits to help them be cured and saved. Both had been sentenced in Heaven to death. The only difference between them was whether their prayer was a "perfect" one! In other words, as Rashi says, one prayed with his whole heart, full of devotion, and the other did not! This teaches us that the difference between a tefilloh with and without kavonoh is the difference between life and death! This is an awe-inspiring thought!

Similarly, we may be certain that if a person prays with deep devotion, he will be saved from death, and his repentance will be accepted.

End of Part I

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