Parashat Vaethanan: Every Prayer is Effective
Parashat Vaethanan begins with Moshe recalling his impassioned prayer to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. Our Sages teach that Moshe recited 515 prayers at this time, alluded to by the word "Vaethanan" ("I pleaded"), which has the numerical value of 515. Finally, after reciting 515 prayers, G-d told Moshe to stop praying, because he was not being allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael.
The question naturally arises, why didn’t G-d stop Moshe earlier? If G-d was determined to forbid Moshe from entering the land, why did He wait until Moshe recited 515 prayers before stopping him? If the prayers were going to be unanswered, would it not have been preferable for Moshe to do something more productive? Didn’t he have work to do that was more valuable than prayers which were destined from the outset to be unanswered?
The Gemara speaks of prayer as "something which stands at the height of the world, but people belittle it" ("Omed Be’rumo Shel Olam U’beneh Adam Mezalzelin Bo"). In other words, prayer is underrated. People do not afford it the importance and value that it deserves. Too often we treat prayer as just an obligatory ritual, or as an optional religious activity, without recognizing its immense value and power.
There are several reasons why people belittle the importance of prayer. First, because we do it so often, it becomes routine and monotonous, and we thus fail to invest the time and emotional energy it deserves. Secondly, the daily prayers require a strict, regimented schedule that is difficult for many people to follow, and thus they give it up.
But the main reason why people do not afford prayer the importance and attention it deserves is because they have grown up with a fundamentally flawed perspective on prayer. Many of us are always told that if we want something we should pray for it, and continue praying until our prayers are unanswered. We were thus trained to perceive prayer as nothing more but a means of achieving what we want. And thus when we do not get what we pray for, we give up. This causes us to "belittle" prayer. We see that our prayers don’t work, and thus conclude that it’s not useful.
But this is not what prayer is about. Prayer is inherently valuable, and every single prayer has some positive effect. It might not be the effect we had in mind, but it is effective. We might compare prayer to rainclouds. There is plenty of moisture in the sky, but we do not know precisely when or where any given drop will fall. Our prayers enter the heavenly "prayer bank," as it were, and form a "prayer cloud." G-d, in His infinite wisdom, decides when and how each prayer will be used. We do not have access to this information, but we do know that each and every word of prayer that we recite is inherently valuable and will have some effect at some point.
There was once a boy who fervently prayed for an ill patient named Yosef Ben Shimon. He recited his prayers tearfully and with genuine emotion, and was devastated when Yosef Ben Shimon passed away, figuring that his payers were recited for naught. He did not know that across the country, in California, there was another ill patient named Yosef Ben Shimon. He fully recovered from his illness, and after his recovery he had a daughter. That girl grew up and married the fellow who had recited for the other Yosef Ben Shimon.
His prayers were answered, but not in the way he thought. Because of his prayers, his future wife came into the world.
Prayer is "Omed Be’rumo Shel Olam." Every single prayer hovers in the sky, waiting until the moment when Hashem determines it should have its effect. We must therefore cherish prayer and utilize this great gift, without ever belittling it. We must rest assured that our prayers will have an effect, and this should motivate us to approach Tefilla with the seriousness and emotion that it deserves.