The Power of Prayer
A fellow was boasting about what a good citizen he was and what a refined, disciplined lifestyle he led. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, I don’t cheat on my wife, I am early to bed and early to rise, and I work hard all day and attend religious services faithfully.” Very impressive, right? Then he added, “I’ve been like this for the last five years, but just you wait until they let me out of this place!”
Although prisons were not really part of the Jewish judicial system, there were occasions when individuals would have their freedom of movement curtailed. One such example was the City of Refuge. If a person was guilty of manslaughter, but not murder, the perpetrator would flee to one of the specially designated Cities of Refuge throughout Biblical Israel where he was given safe haven from the wrath of a would-be avenging relative of the victim. It was also a necessary form of penance to bring atonement for the act which took another person’s life.
The Torah tells us that his term of exile would end with the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Commentary tells of an interesting practice that developed. The mother of the Kohen Gadol at the time would make a point of sending gifts of food parcels to those exiled so that they should not pray for the early demise of her son to which their own freedom was linked.
Now this is very strange. Here is a man who, though not a murderer, is not entirely innocent of any negligence either. The Rabbis teach that G-d does not allow misfortune to befall the righteous. If this person caused a loss of life, we can safely assume that he is somewhat less than righteous. Opposite him stands the High Priest of Israel, noble, aristocratic and, arguably, the holiest Jew alive. Of the entire nation, he alone would have the awesome responsibility and privilege of entering the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem on the holy day of Yom Kippur. Do we really have reason to fear that the prayers of this morally tainted prisoner will have such a negative effect on the revered and exalted High Priest to the extent that he may die?! And his poor mother has to go and shlep food parcels to distant cities to soften up the prisoner so he should go easy in his prayers so that her holy son may live?! Does this make sense?
But such is the power of prayer – the prayer of any individual, noble or ordinary, righteous, simple, or even somewhat sinful.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Otherwise, I suppose, Shuls around the world would be overflowing daily. But we do believe fervently in the power of prayer. And though, ideally, we pray in Hebrew and with a Congregation, the most important ingredient for our prayers to be successful is sincerity. “G-d wants the heart,” we are taught. The language and the music are secondary to the genuineness of our prayers. Nothing can be more genuine than a tear shed in prayer.
By all means, learn the language of our Siddur, the prayer book. Improve your Hebrew reading so you can follow the services and daaven with fluency. But remember, most important of all is our sincerity. May all our prayers be answered.