Question: I spent quite a bit of time praying for someone who was very ill. Many people came together to pray for this person yet she unfortunately passed away. How can we say then that a prayer is never answered? Obviously in this case and in many others the prayers of so many people have not been answered. How can we have absolute faith in G-d if He doesn’t spare the life of someone who so many prayed for. I understand that belief in G-d is fundamental to our religion but I just wish to understand this. I have also heard many answers before. For example G-d does everything for a reason and one can’t see the whole picture. I was wondering if you had a different answer as this one doesn’t fully answer my question.
Answer: Hello, Difficult times certainly do seem to have the power to sharpen ones focus on issues like our relationship with God. It’s not at all uncommon for questions like yours to come to a person’s mind in the wake of a tragedy. Sometimes, the best answer is simple silence. That, after all, is how Aharon the priest responded to the sudden death of his two older sons (Levit. 10:3) That is also how the friends of Job initially reacted to his suffering. Sometimes the compassionate silence of friends is more powerful than words.
Still, since you did ask specific questions, I’ll try to offer you some ideas that might help.
The first thing to understand is that prayer – no matter how sincere and intense – can never be guaranteed to produce results. Think about it: if all prayers were rewarded, wouldn’t that make us gods, and God nothing more than our slave? Think about this, too: are we really so sure that we know enough of the universe’s workings to be sure that what we’re asking for is really the very best thing for everyone? Isn’t it wiser to place ourselves in God’s gentle and powerful hands; to rely on His judgment?
This, in effect, is what King David’s general, Yoav, was saying on the eve of a very dangerous battle (II Samuel, 10:12) with the words: “Be strong and sure for our people and for the cities of the Lord our God, and the Lord will do what is best in His eyes.” So what then is the purpose of prayer?
Here’s one idea. According to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, prayer is an opportunity to absorb the lessons of centuries of Jewish wisdom. The prayer book (Siddur), Psalms and the words various traditional formulations are bursting with valuable lessons about our relationship with God, His compassion and generosity and our own fragile existence. By thinking about these precious words, we are deeply enriching our own faith and expressing our dependence on God – who does, after all – care for us.
Do our prayers have any effect on our suffering friends? Undoubtedly. Perhaps the very act of growing in faith and sensitivity as a result of the prayer process can be considered a significant accomplishment for ones loved one. After all, it was your relationship to him/her which inspired this growth.
There is much more to this subject, but I hope that these words will be of some help to you.
With my best wishes,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton