The Power Of Prayer: Can Human Error Lead To Grave Consequences?
There’s something that has been bothering me for quite some time now, an issue I have not discussed with anyone to this day. A couple of years ago I received a call from an acquaintance who asked me to be part of a Tehillim group that was hastily assembled for the refuah of a young mother we knew who was very sick.
I was assigned a set few kapitlach and straightaway undertook to say them daily. The idea was for the entire Sefer Tehillim to be completed each day for the zechus of a speedy recovery for this poor woman who had been suffering from a terminal illness.
For several weeks I included this regimen in my morning praying ritual like clockwork. One morning, as I was in middle of saying these verses, I was interrupted and had to set my Tehillim aside. I made a mental note to complete it later in the day, when I would be reciting my own daily Tehillim.
The next morning it suddenly hit me that I had forgotten all about it. I felt absolutely awful and chided myself for having created a “hole” in the sefer that was to be completed on a daily basis. Since I couldn’t turn the clock back, I decided I would make up for the lapse by saying it twice on this day.
The problem was… I never got the chance to. The woman we were praying for died that same day.
You cannot imagine how horrified I was at the news. For weeks on end I tormented myself. “What if…? Had our Tehillim kept her alive? Did my void empower the Malach HaMeves to carry out its mission?”
Who was I to yield such power, I argued with myself. Then again, if we are powerless to affect a cure, why bother with the tefillah to begin with?
From time to time I receive such calls – to pray on behalf of someone who needs a shidduch, for a sick person, a childless couple, etc. – and find myself wondering whether everyone agreeing to join in the mitzvah can be depended on to devote themselves to the cause and follow through with their commitment.
I don’t mean to come across as chas v’sholom maligning anyone, but most of us have umpteen responsibilities and over-busy schedules, and we are only human.
Reliable, yet not infallible
Your letter conveys a powerful message that raises multiple issues. Right off the bat, most of us find the sort of call you refer to almost impossible to decline. Regardless of how busy we may be, none of us wishes to be perceived as uncaring or selfish. Our reasoning: How can we not agree to take a few minutes out of our hectic day to help someone in his or her time of need?
To be sure, this is an instance that demands utmost sincerity (to the caller) and perfect honesty (with oneself). Any uncertainty about sticking to such a commitment obligates us to admit as much. (Some groups will offer a stand-in, someone who can be relied upon to take over another’s slot for a day or for longer, as required.)
Taking on less rather than more at the outset can also solve the time-consuming dilemma. If the caller, for instance, suggests twelve posukim, it is perfectly acceptable to agree to say a more manageable four or five. This will not diminish the mitzvah an iota. The focus is on the seriousness of the undertaking and the responsibility to keep one’s word.
Needless to say, you were not negligent per se; you dutifully did your part until your daily routine veered off track. Since this can technically happen to any of us, there are steps we can take to keep from slipping up. Technological advances easily allow us to set an electronic prompt on our portable hand-held devices or desktops, while an unconventional bookmark manually inserted in our Sefer Tehillim can also serve as a reminder.
While prayers are unquestionably potent, none of us is immortal. Tefilla may sometimes postpone the inevitable, but everyone’s day must eventually dawn. Prayers on one’s behalf can also prolong the suffering of a terminally ill person in unbearable pain.
Another thought to reflect upon: Though we have freedom of choice, we oftentimes can clearly see or sense the Hand of Hashem guiding us – many times in ways we would never fathom or consciously choose for ourselves. You did not consciously choose to create the “void” in the group’s tefilla sequence; hence your doing so can be viewed as “meant to be” – for the woman’s time was up.
If you still find yourself dwelling excessively on this episode, light a candle for her neshama on the day of her yahrtzeit, or, if feasible, visit the cemetery and say some Tehillim at her gravesite. She will understand … and your burden will feel lighter.
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