For the week ending 29 December 2018 / 21 Tevet 5779

Pertinent Prayer

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Rachel

Dear Rabbi,
My question regards mistakenly continuing to pray for someone when that prayer is no longer relevant for that person. And I have two specific cases in mind:

One involves continuing to daven for sick people after they have already passed. This can happen when people don’t update a list of cholim (sick people) to be prayed for, such that those who have died continue to be davened for without an update. Is there any benefit to continue davening in the Refuah section of Shemoneh Esrei for a choleh who has since died?

Another case is the opposite: continuing to daven for cholim who no longer need it because they got well. In this case, is there any harm praying for a healthy person among a list of cholim, as if he were still sick?

Thank you rabbi for your answers!

Dear Rachel,

These are intriguing questions. It is true that ideally one’s prayers should be as specific and accurate as possible. So, in your first case, praying for the recovery of one who has already passed is certainly off the mark.

And furthermore, since our “power of speech” does have an effect, we avoid even unintentional negative speech, like saying to someone by way of illustration, “Suppose you were sick…” We avoid this for fear that these words of speech will actually bring sickness upon the well person. So, your second case, referring to a well person in the powerful context of prayer as sick, might be harmful.

However, that being said, the Talmudic Sages taught that mistaken but well-intentioned prayer is received lovingly by G-d, who considers the prayer as if it had been uttered in the correct form. In Song of Songs, metaphorically describing the loving relationship between G-d and the Jewish People, Israel says about G-d, “I accept His banner (diglo, דגלו) lovingly” (4:2).

The Talmud teaches that G-d’s version of this verse in praise of Israel is reversed: “I accept his mistake (dilugo, דילוגו) lovingly”.

Accordingly, if for no other reason than one is sincerely praying for the welfare of another, even in mistaken form, G-d endearingly receives the prayer as if it had been offered in the correct way. So, whether one is praying for the recovery of another who has already passed, or, alternatively, for one who has already recovered, such prayer will be directed toward the appropriate venue to benefit the one being prayed for.

What’s more, it seems that in the scenario you are asking about, namely praying for people you don’t know personally, and about whom you might not be updated regarding a change in their status, it might be appropriate and helpful to have the following idea in mind.

It is true that praying for a refuah, recovery, refers to the person’s return to health in this-worldly terms. However, one can also have in mind that in case the person has since passed, the intention of the prayer should be to remove spiritual malady, curing the departed soul and restoring its original spiritual health so that it may thrive in the spiritual realm together with G-d.

Conversely, one can also have in mind that in case the person has been cured of the specific malady, the intention of the prayer should be to remove all and any residual or lingering effects or traces of that malady, or any other form of imbalance, be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, which would render the person not entirely well (and, indeed, who, even among the healthy, can say they are entirely free of any ailment?) such that including him among the prayers of recovery for the sick would not be entirely unfounded.

In this way, your benevolent prayer on behalf of others, whether they are still plagued by their current illness, or have passed on and seek spiritual well-being, or have been cured of the specific illness but could benefit, as we all can, from even better health and more strength in any number of ways, is beneficial and accepted lovingly by G‑d.

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