I have learned the hard way that some of the most important lessons in life come from unexpected sources. I have also learned that later, equally unexpected sources often force me to reconsider those important lessons.
Let me tell you the history of one of those lessons, which I learned and then had to relearn.
It all started on the Saturday night that I agreed to address a group of women who had been praying for many weeks for the healing of the sick. This group recited Psalms, Tehillim, for a list of people in the community who were suffering from life-threatening illnesses. From time to time, they asked one of the local rabbis to address them at the end of their prayer session. On this particular Saturday night, they asked me, and I agreed.
I tried to give an inspirational speech, stressing the importance of compassion and the power of prayers on behalf of others. I commended them for their sincerity and concern, and for their willingness to surrender an hour of their time each and every week to address prayers on behalf of individuals whom many of them did not even know.
Then I made a mistake. I told the group and I had another 10 or 15 minutes and would be glad to answer any questions that they had about prayer. The questions were not long in coming, and they came from everyone in the group. "Why is it," they asked, "That we pray profusely, yet the only time we remove someone sick from our list is when they pass away?" "Our prayers seem to never be answered," they said in chorus. "What is the point of uttering unanswered prayers?"
I responded by "talking the talk." Every rabbi with even a smattering of theological training knows all of the stock answers to such questions. "God surely listens to our prayers," I pontificated, "but sometimes says 'no!'"
The next morning, I found a handwritten note in the mail. It was from a woman, a registered nurse in the emergency room of the local hospital, who had attended the previous night's session.
She wrote, "I suggest a different kind of answer that could have been given to the questions that inundated you last night. You could've said that when we pray for a sick person to recover, we do not only pray for his or her total recovery. We also pray that the patient not suffer undue pain, that the family be able to bear the travail of witnessing the suffering of their loved one, that the doctors be able to execute their procedures effectively, and that, if so decreed, the patient leave this world surrounded by family and at peace."
The lesson I learned was that when we pray, we pray for an entire constellation of events. Even if we are not granted that the person we pray for lives on, a lot of what we pray for is granted.
In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Va’etchanan, we read how Moses fervently prayed that he be granted the privilege of entering the Promised Land. His prayer was denied.
"Oh Lord... let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan... but the Lord was wroth with me... and hearkened not unto me; and the Lord said unto me: 'Speak no more unto me of this matter.'" (Deuteronomy 3:24-26)
After learning the lesson that the good nurse told me, I began to wonder whether indeed the prayer of Moses was not heard. True, his major request, that he be permitted to enter the Holy Land, was not granted to him. But wasn't there so much more that he might have prayed for that was indeed granted? His disciple Joshua entered the land. His children, B’nai Yisrael, entered the land. He was buried in close proximity to the land. He was permitted to at least see the land. Could he not take comfort in the fact that, although his major goal was not achieved, so much else was? This is a question that I have been asking myself for many years, whenever the Torah portion of Va’etchanan comes around.
Recently, I discovered the answer to that question. I had the very rewarding, although poignantly painful, experience of leading a retreat for bereaved parents. They came from a variety of backgrounds, and the circumstances of the death of their children ranged from terrorist murders to accidental drownings to long-term illnesses.
They too were troubled by the question of the efficacy of prayer. They asked questions similar to those asked by the women of the Saturday night prayer group. "Why were our prayers for our dear children not heard by the Almighty?"
I thought that I was being helpful when I shared with them the handwritten notes from the emergency room nurse. I was wrong. They did not find that note helpful at all. As one bereaved mother in the group told me, "I was praying for the most important thing in the world – the life of my poor baby. Can I take comfort in the relatively trivial aspects of my prayer? Can I be consoled by the fact that he was killed instantly by the terrorists bullet and suffered no pain?"
I had to unlearn the lessons taught to me so many years ago by that nurse. I learned a new lesson. I learned that when there is something that you value above all else, you can tolerate no compromises. Some goals are so important that the achievement of lesser goals means nothing.
This is how we can understand the fact that Moses was disconsolate when his prayer was rejected. To him, entry into the Holy Land was of paramount importance. Not that he sought to eat the fruits and gain the material pleasures of the land flowing with milk and honey. But because he knew that he could reach spiritual peaks in the land of Israel that even he could never attain outside the land.
He wanted to enter the Promised Land. No lesser promises could possibly have satisfied him.
This Sabbath is known as Shabbat Nachamu. It celebrates the end of the three weeks of mourning for the Temple's destruction, and inaugurates the seven weeks of consolation. This week, besides reading the Torah portion of Va’etchanan, we also read from the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah, which begins, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people..."
The message is clear. Many of our prayers over the millennia have been denied. Our history is replete with unanswered prayers. It is difficult to take consolation when we have suffered so. But the message of Isaiah is clear: There is a time, and hopefully it is very near, when even the pain of the unanswered prayer can be assuaged.
In the words of the historian Graetz, as quoted in the Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz commentary: "These words of the prophets are like balm upon a wound, or like a soft breath upon a fevered brow."