Culture, Religion

The Rabbis taught: four things require being done with vigour; Torah study, good deeds, prayer and one's worldly occupation

The quote above comes from a fantastic sugya in the Gemara on prayer (Berakhot 32b). Praying is one of those things that defies reason. In my opinion, there is no way to justify prayer in a rational world and yet it is something that people throughout the entire globe, irrespective of economic background, religious affiliation or ethnic heritage, participate in. I recently heard a story from dear friends which made me stop and consider the utter power of prayer.
The story came via a very interesting organization which some out there may have heard of, Western Wall Prayers. This service and business was founded by Gershon and Batya Burd, an executive director of a yeshiva and a former lawyer respectively, who live in the Old City of Jerusalem. The concept is this…
One enlists a shaliah (messenger) to be an agent at the Kotel (Western Wall) and pray with the focus for a specific intention for 40 days. The person who hires this agent is requested and expected to engage in prayer with the same focus for the same 40 days. In their own words, the purpose of Western Wall Prayers

“is not meant to be a rabbit’s foot, or replacement for your own personal growth, but an extra resource that G-d gave you in order to arouse His mercy.
Also, according to Judaism, 3 things annul an evil decree: prayer, charity and repentance. Through the 40 days of prayer, the charity given at the Wall and your personal 40-day work, you will G-d-willing fulfill another method of arousing G-d’s mercy and be much closer to being a fitting emissary to receive the blessing you want.
Since we cannot play G-d, we offer no guarantees. However, with Torah-learning, heart-felt prayers and good deeds we do our best!”

And in this way, the quote that titles this post is put into real-life action. Now for the story I read that immediately made me think of this sugya and this quote specifically.
The story is of a man who requested to remain anonymous due to his sensitive situation of being of Iranian descent with family still in Iran. The reason he contacted WWP was this:

As you know I have been a regular at the 40 days segulah service you offer, since the end of January 2008. I have requested the 40 days segullah service on numerous occasions since then. I am a Sales Manager working at a very large company, and noticing the deteriorating financial situation since the end of 2007, I decided to request my first segullah 40 days prayer at the Holy Kotel. My situation went from bad to worse after my first segullah. I requested a second segullah and a third, and in this period I experienced disaster after disaster. In my sales and in my personal financial situation things could not be worse…
It was the month of Elul, I decided to accept G-d’s will for my life and decided not to complain anyore and hope that somehow G-d would intervene on my behalf. It was then that due to a mistake I made in a price offer that I had been circulating that a legal complaint was put up against me and my company by a very large supplier of raw material to my company. I was in the middle of a segullah to be ended on Yom Kippur when I asked you for another 40 days segullah for help with this legal case.
Just After Yom Kippur everything in my life started to take a dramatic turn. My sales went up spectacularly. I could not even believe it myself. I started to close deals for Millions of dollars during the worse economic calamity and depression to hit the international markets. On the 40th day of the segullah for the legal case, when I visited the virtual Kotel service on Aish website (I made a habit to visit virtual Kotel service on Aish every day to spiritually accompany my prayer agent in Jerusalem) the visitor count number added up to number 40 !!! On this same day at my work I was informed by my company that our supplier was dropping all charges against me and my company. I was so surprised that I decided to pray and ask G-d to please open the way for my to go to Jerusalem personally and read Psalm number 21 to thank him for his kindness.
2 weeks ago I received an unexpected telephone call from an Israeli friend of mine who invited me to come to visit him for the 50th birthday of his wife. Not only this but he informed me he was paying my flight, he wanted to surprise his family by having me visit them on this special occasion. I will be visiting Israel from December 26 to December 30th, during which time I will come to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel and read Pslam number 21. The faithfulness of G-d and His compassion are so great, he has not left any prayer unanswered.
The story does not end here. Last Monday I recieved an unexpected fax from our CEO at our head office congratulating me for having been elected “Sales Leader of the year” by our corporate strategic centre. This is the highest award in our company. I was dumbfounded and surprised as to why they chose me, my company has 32.000 employees worldwide. I will be given the award + 10.000 USD$ check bonus next Tuesday (by the will and help of G-d), 3 days before I come to Israel. I think I won’t be able to read Psalm 21 without tears in my eyes.
I am not informing you this, in anyway to boast, but only as a testimony to His promise: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:6)
I would like to thank you and your 40 days segullah service. I had my personal miracles connecting to G-d through the Holy Kotel. This year my life changed. This year I experienced the verses in Psalm 20:1-2
“May the L-RD answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the G-d of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the Temple
and grant you support from Zion”

Many may snicker or laugh at such a concept, but whether you believe in prayer in general or a specific thing like this, it must be acknowledged that it is very real to those who do believe. That for this man who saw his life turn around, God answered his prayers. What is more, and what truly struck me about this story, was how much it related to this particular sugya in Berakhot. There is another passage from this section that I feel is wholly embodied in this specific story from this anonymous person.
(translation not my own, to save time; it’s not the language I would use, but it gets the essential idea across, so please ignore gendered language, the thous, -eths and whences and such)

R. Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, And I prayed unto the Lord, and it is written afterward, And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also. But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, Hope deferred maketh the heart sick? What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, But desire fulfilled is a tree of life; and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her! — There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfillment of his prayer. R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.

It’s moments of connection between everyday life and ancient text that make me appreciate what it means to have a living tradition. I am pretty impressed that the story of this man is a complete reflection of the final statement in this passage, “If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”
To me this is a testament of what it means to have faith. One of my favorite aspects of the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language, as compared to English, is that in Hebrew, one does not “have faith,” but rather one acts on faith. There is no real way to have a possessive form a faith, rather, to make up a verb, one ‘faithes’. Say what you will about the idea of what Western Wall Prayers does, but one thing that can’t be denied is that this story, along with the many others telling of ‘miraculous’ births and major life changes, is that this kind of active, conscious prayer embodies the precepts found in this Talmudic passage.
It leads me to think, what is a person able to accomplish when they have full and complete faith and are willing to dedicate time, effort and energy, or, using the term of the Talmud, to be “vigorous” in their belief?

5 thoughts on “The Rabbis taught: four things require being done with vigour; Torah study, good deeds, prayer and one's worldly occupation

  1. that is so amazing, an Iranian guy who has to stay anonymous, is having observant Jews praying for him!

  2. Let’s flip that question on its head… is there a limit to what is accomplished on behalf of such a person?

  3. If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.
    🙁 That is such a R. Yochanan thing to say. He also used to talk about how everything stands poised for death… a seriously unhappy life.
    This was a good post – compassionate about things which seem kind of precarious.

  4. this kind of blog post is what is nearly completely absent from jewish consciousness and jewish dialogue, almost a dead language. the story was heartfelt, but the author’s extrapolation of it was even more understanding. whether or not we want to believe, that is what prayer is, trying, after repeated failures to internalize faithfulness. if you want to see, through prayer, you may be able to see. but it takes vigor.
    thank you so much for this post, for every reason.

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