In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Vaera, Moses is sent by God to inflict plagues upon the Egyptians for refusing to let His people go. Time and time again, Moses warns Pharaoh that he is about to be afflicted, yet Pharaoh stands in his refusal. Our sages tell us (Shmos Rabboh 13:3) that eventually Pharaoh lost his free will to correct his ways and heed God’s command. The Rambam tells us that if someone takes a wrong path in life and sins severely without repentance, his punishment is that eventually he will lose the power to choose otherwise. And when God takes away the ability for someone to repent, he can undergo the most difficult consequences and still be powerless to change his ways.
Nevertheless, there is still hope. Rabbi Shalom Shwadron (in Lev Shalom) derives from the words of the Rambam, that even in such a state, there is still one way that one can change: Prayer. As the Rambam later says (ibid 6:4), the righteous pray for this very situation; that their sins should not prevent them from being able to repent. Prayer has the power to transcend all barriers and give a person the ability to turn around, no matter what.
This concept is very enlightening; but at the same time, this also puts on us a distinct responsibility to pray for our success in spiritual matters. Rabbi Aharon Kotler (in Mishnas R’ Aharon, Vol. 1 pp. 102-104) cites a passage from the Talmud (Brachos 50a) which tells us that when it comes to requesting materialistic objects in prayer, it should be done in a minimalistic manner, like a beggar pleading for some alms. But when it comes to asking for assistance in spiritual accomplishments, one should broaden his vision and ask for the highest levels imaginable, as the verse says (Psalms 81:11), “Widen your mouth and I will fill it.” Rabbi Kotler adds that this is not merely the fashion in which one should request assistance, should he decide to pray for spiritual achievements. It is actually an instruction to us to make sure to be proactive about praying for such accomplishments. One should always pray to become truly great in his spiritual career, with no limits!
An allegory is told about a doctor who had a shift at an emergency room in a hospital, on a night when that department was understaffed. To his misfortune, it turned out to be a particularly busy night, with one patient coming in after another, each one in a worse condition than the previous one. The doctor was overloaded as he ran to attend to one wound after the other. The poor doctor was not able to keep up with the demand for his attention, and unfortunately some of the patients did not make it through the night. It wasn’t long before an investigation was underway and court charges were filed against the doctor. The doctor showed up to court confident in his innocence, as he gathered much evidence proving how he worked tirelessly to save the lives of all the people he could, and he couldn’t possibly have done anything more. But when he presented his case in his defense, the prosecutor shot back at him in fury, “You have the audacity to say that you did everything you could to save their lives?! Everyone knows that the protocol in the emergency room is that when there is not enough staff to deal with life-threatening ailments, you must call for help! Had you sounded the alarm, the staff from upstairs would have come rushing down and no one would have died!” The doctor could do no more than bury his head in shame in response to his grave error.
Often, when we decide we need to improve ourselves in a certain area, we try very hard to change, without success. Sometimes, we try to work on a certain character trait. We try a few times, and eventually we give up and resign to our fate. Had the ability to change been completely dependent on our own strength, perhaps we could be excused. But it is not so. As hard as we may try on our own, we can never ascertain that it is truly impossible. Even one who has sinned can always resort to prayer. We can never know how much we could reach through prayer.
Parshas Vaera by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (firstname.lastname@example.org)