Rosh Hashanah 18
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we declare “Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the bad (of the) decree.” Pretty simple formula: you want a good year? Repent, pray and give lots of tzedakah!
So does that mean that if I had a bad year, I didn’t pray hard enough? I didn’t give enough charity?
Rabbi Meir taught: If two people took ill with the same malady or two faced judgment over the same law, but only one left his bed or only one was acquitted, how are we to explain this phenomenon? The answer is that one prayed and was answered and the other prayed and was not answered.
Why is one person answered while another in the same situation is not? Answers Rabbi Meir: The one who prays a complete prayer is answered but the one who prays an incomplete prayer is not answered.
Does that mean that if we see someone who does not recover from their illness, it means that they didn’t pray hard enough?!? Had they prayed a “complete” prayer, they would have survived!?!
That is absolutely false and based on a misunderstanding of the nature of prayer in Judaism.
The word “prayer” in English connotes asking G-d for our needs. Tefillah – the Hebrew word for prayer – means so much more. There are various elements of tefillah, including praising G-d, beseeching G-d, and thanking Him.
But the most important function of prayer is connecting with the Almighty. G-d wants you to have a relationship with Him. The deeper the relationship, the more complete the prayer and the more complete your relationship with G-d.
In fact, the Hebrew word for ‘complete’ – shalem – is the same word as ‘peace’ – shalom. To be complete with G-d is to be at peace with Him.
When you start praying, you expect that G-d is going to give you the answer that you want to hear. But the more complete your prayer-experience gets, the more you begin to understand that ultimately G-d knows what’s best for us. And if He has decreed a certain fate for us, He knows what he is doing. A complete prayer is one where you develop such an intense relationship with the Almighty that you are completely at peace with His decision.
That’s why Rabbi Meir doesn’t suggest that the fellow who is “answered” recovers. He may or may not. But he does “leave his bed” – he leaves his predicament with the understanding that G-d loves him no matter the outcome. Similarly, the one who is “saved” from judgment – whatever the final outcome, he is “saved,” knowing that G-d is in charge of the ultimate plan.
Our prayer on the High Holy days doesn’t promise that “repentance, prayer and charity” will remove or annul the bad decree. Rather, it states that the bad of the decree will be removed. When you develop a powerful relationship with the Almighty, whatever He sends your way will be much more tolerable, knowing that He has a plan.
Prayer is one of the pillars upon which the world stands. It’s time to stop thinking about what G-d can give you or owes you when you talk to Him. Next time you pray, think about everything He already does for you. You will be incredibly awestruck and realize how much He loves you.
You will then be on your way to complete prayer – a relationship with the Almighty that is deep beyond words where your life and being will be out of this world!