A fellow was boasting about what a good person he was and what a 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 are not really part of the Jewish judicial system, there were occasions when individuals would have their freedom of movement restricted. One such example was the City of Refuge (“Arei Mikalt”). A person guilty of manslaughter (i.e., unintentional murder) would flee to one of the specially designated Cities of Refuge throughout biblical Israel where they were given safe haven from the wrath of a would-be avenging relative of the victim.
The Torah tells us that their term of exile would end with the death of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. The Talmud tells of an interesting practice that developed. The mother of the Kohen Gadol at the time would make a point of bringing gifts of food to those exiled, so that they should not pray for the early demise of her son, to which their own freedom was tied.
Now, this seems very perplexing. 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 less than righteous. Opposite him stands the High Priest of Israel, arguably the holiest Jew alive. Of the entire nation, he alone had the awesome responsibility and privilege of entering the inner sanctum of the Holy Temple, the “Holy of Holies,” 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 the Kohen Gadol may die? And his poor mother must go and shlep food parcels to distant cities to soften up the prisoner so they should go easy in their 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 or even sinful.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Otherwise, I suppose, shuls around the world would be overflowing daily. But we do believe vehemently 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 setting 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 daven with fluency. But remember, most important of all is our sincerity. May all our prayers be answered. JN
Rabbi Shimi Ash is the co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Gilbert.