Why Davening For Someone Else Helps
Editor’s Note: The following is an edited speech, transcribed by Zachary Orenshein, given by Rabbi Michael Taubes on Wednesday, Jan. 12, one month after he suffered from a stroke. An audio version of the speech can be accessed here.
It’s certainly wonderful to be back here in the beis medrash – to be back with all of you. I know that today is the last day before finals and you now have chazzarah with your rebbeim. I don’t want to take away time from that. But I did want to speak for just a few moments to in effect share my profound sense of hakaras hatov, my gratitude, to each and every person in this beis medrash.
In this week’s sedra, Parshas Beshalach, the most famous passage is the Shiras HaYam — the song which Bnai Yisrael sang after the splitting of the Red Sea, which we of course say as part of the davening every morning. It opens with the words “Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael” — then Moshe and Bnai Yisrael sang this song. A lot of commentaries are troubled by the use here of the word “az” — then. What is added by that word? Clearly, what is about to be described, the Shiras HaYam, followed whatever came before it. We don’t usually have in the Torah a passage introduced by the word “az.”
Here, the Torah presents the events, the splitting of the sea, followed by the people’s reaction: “Va-yar Yisrael es ha-yad ha-gedolah asher asah Hashem be-Mitzrayim va-yiru ha-‘am es Hashem va-ya’aminu ba-Hashem u’vMoshe ‘avdo.” The next pasuk should say “Va-yashiru Moshe u’vnei Yisrael” — Moshe and Bnai Yisrael sang. What additional point is made by the word “az”? In English, when you are writing a composition or an essay, you don’t say, “Then we did this, and then we did that; then he said this, and then he said that.” You don’t introduce each new thought by writing the word “then.” Obviously, when you are presenting a sequence of events, the assumption is that they occurred in the order in which they appear. The Torah here should therefore say simply that Moshe and Bnai Yisrael sang; we would understand that the song came then and right then, without the word “az.”
The Netziv, in his commentary here, notes that by using the word ”az,” the Torah is stressing that the song, the shirah, was sung only at that very point when the yeshuah, the salvation, was complete. Bnai Yisrael had gone through a lot in what was the entire previous year, as Chazal tell us. They experienced all the makkos, and of course, the night of Yetzias Mitzrayim itself, and thus had a lot to be grateful for. But the shirah, the great song of thanks to Hashem – that was davka then – “az” – after the entire yeshuah, after the salvation was complete. You don’t sing Hashem’s praises fully when the results aren’t all yet in. There are other ways of expressing thanks to Hashem at that point, but the full song of praise to Hashem – that is recited only after the completion of the yeshuah.
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik is quoted in the writings of his son Rav Velvel on a pasuk in Tehillim (13:6) that we also say in the davening every day as conveying the same idea. We affirm “va-ani be-chasdecha vatachti yagel libi by’shu’asecha,” meaning that I have bitachon — I trust — I am confident in, the chessed of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and my heart will rejoice in His (forthcoming) yeshuah. But “Ashirah la-Hashem” — I will sing to Hashem — when? Only “ki gamal alay” – when what was done has been completed in its entirety. “Ki gamal,” when it is in past tense, when it has already happened. Full shirah to HaKadosh Baruch Hu is appropriate only after the full completion of the salvation.
Now, full disclosure, the Shaloh in commenting on our parsha, and perhaps the Vilna Gaon in one place (Mishlei 11:10) learn differently. Perhaps one can sing even before the salvation is complete. That’s a question. Do I have enough bitachon to sing praises to Hashem even beforehand? Is that right? It is an interesting topic.
Personally, I feel a little torn at this time. All of you know that a month ago I suffered a stroke. For those who are not exactly familiar with what a stroke is, a stroke is to the brain like a heart attack is to the heart. Somehow, some blood does not circulate properly in the head; in my case it was the back part of the brain. As a result of that, in my particular situation, I could not move my left arm — any part of my arm. Not my shoulder, not my elbow, not my wrist, not my fingers. And I couldn’t move my left leg at all. I couldn’t bend my foot, I couldn’t move my toes, I couldn’t bend my knees. The whole left side of my body was taken out. Now, baruch Hashem, chasdei Hashem, I can walk by myself, and I have full use of my arm. A couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t even button my shirt because I didn’t have the dexterity in my fingers — and now I can. Chasdei Hashem. So on the one hand, I have tremendous recognition of the chessed and the rachamim that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has bestowed upon me.
On the other hand, I am not there yet. I wish I were 100% now, but I am not. I have to walk a little more slowly with a little more effort, and my arm is still weak, but baruch Hashem. So I am figuring it all out. Should I sing to Hashem now? Should I not sing yet? It’s a discussion; maybe your rebbeim can talk to you about it. Should I bentsh Gomel? I actually have not bentshed Gomel yet, as some poskim feel that one should be closer to 100% recovered before bentshing Gomel. B’Ezras Hashem I will do so within the next few days, but we are not here to discuss the halachic issues right now.
I asked for the opportunity to address you because there is absolutely no question in my mind — no question — that all of the tefillos and the Tehillim and the learning that was undertaken by the talmidim of this Yeshiva – by you – greatly helped my recovery. I have no question. Yes, I had good doctors and good therapists and everything else. But B’Chasdei Hashem, I progressed more quickly and strongly than they originally thought.
To be perfectly honest, when the stroke first hit — the first day — it was a Motzaei Shabbos. I was actually giving a shiur on Zoom when it happened. I was able to finish the shiur, but then I couldn’t get up out of my seat. The next morning, Sunday, it was right after Parshas Vayigash – I’ll put it this way – it was far, far from clear that I would ever walk normally again. One of the doctors indicated to my wife the possibility that I would be in a wheelchair for a long time. Chasdei Hashem, that is not the case. I started slowly, first with a walker and then with a cane. Baruch Hashem, now I don’t need any of that. Again, I do have to walk more slowly, but hopefully over the next several weeks, I’ll continue to improve. I still have to participate in outpatient therapy; a few times a week I have to go in for exercise and so on. But Chasdei Hashem.
How did it happen? How was I able to progress so well, baruch Hashem? I have no doubt that the kabbalos, the things that were accepted by the talmidim of this Yeshiva made a big difference. It was a tremendous source of chizzuk to me when Rabbi Kahn and Rabbi Schenker told me that different shiurim undertook different things on my behalf. People were saying Tehillim and people were saying tefillos. There is no doubt — no doubt at all in my mind — that all this helped.
In the rehab center that I went to after coming out of the hospital for a few weeks, they were very, very pleased to say the least — indeed surprised — by the pace of the progress. But it was because I had something else. Again, the therapists were excellent, I’m not saying they were not, but I believe I had something else in my corner.
But how does that work? How does it help when we say Tehillim for someone else? What does my davening have to do with somebody else? How does my Tehillim make a difference? I have often wondered this myself. When we say Tehillim for somebody at the end of davening – someone needs a refuah sheleimah, so and so is having a procedure today so we are going to say Tehillim after davening – how does it work?
I would like to suggest for your thinking as follows, and please bear this in mind any time you are asked to daven for somebody else.
You know, when a human court — even a Jewish court, a beis din, or a secular court — renders a decision, they have to take into account the facts that they have in front of them. And, let’s take a secular court: If someone is found guilty of whatever the crime, he is sentenced to serve, say, “x“ number of years in jail. That is the punishment. Evidently, he deserves it. But one second. If he is going to go to jail, now his wife is going to suffer also. If he has children, then his children will suffer too. But they didn’t do anything wrong! Why should they be punished? Why should we send this guy to jail – maybe he deserves it, but his friends and his family members, they didn’t commit any crime, yet they are going to suffer, too! The answer is that we can’t control that. Human beings can’t consider all that. We have to have a system of laws, with penalties and so forth, with crime and punishment, so we have to do our best even though in a certain sense it is not fully fair. There are people who are going to be punished even though they do not deserve it.
Not so, however, with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The pasuk that we say at the end of mincha on Shabbos afternoon (Tehillim 36:7) says, “mishpatecha tehom rabbah.” Your judgment, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, is “tehom rabbah” — it goes to the great depths, deep down. It takes everything into account. Everything, the whole situation, such that when HaKadosh Baruch Hu judges, it ends up being fair to everybody. And that may mean that somebody who committed a particular crime will get a seemingly “lighter” punishment because HaKadosh Baruch Hu is not going to hurt his wife and his children because they don’t deserve it. Everybody involved gets what they deserve. HaKadosh Baruch Hu takes into account the whole picture, and, to use the English term, He plumbs to the depths — to the “tehom rabbah” — to see all the ramifications.
Rabbosai, if I daven for somebody else, and I am sincere about it, I am saying to HaKadosh Baruch Hu that maybe he deserves whatever it is that is happening, but I didn’t do anything wrong; I don’t deserve to be punished by seeing him suffer. And if two people daven for somebody else, then now there are two people who are friends of his who are going to be hurt if the tefillos are not answered. And if one hundred people daven, so now there are one hundred people who say that they care about this individual, and if something bad happens, it is going to bother all of them, and that is not fair. HaKadosh Baruch Hu therefore won’t let that happen.
The idea of saying Tehillim and davening for somebody else is that you care. You care about what happens to that person. In my situation, I believe that whatever happened to me when I had the stroke was something that HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave me because I deserved it for whatever the reason. We don’t usually know why He does what He does, but we have to be matzdik es ha-din, we have to accept His judgment. As for my recovery, I don’t know if I did or did not deserve on my own to have the kind of recovery that I had, baruch Hashem. But I do know that when I have hundreds of talmidim learning and davening for me and saying, “I care too! Don’t let this happen to him because it is going to hurt me too!” — that makes a big difference. And the same is true if an adam dadol, or a tzaddik, or talmidei chachamim daven for somebody, they too are saying to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “I care. So maybe he deserves whatever you wanted to do to him, but don’t do it to me!” And HaKadosh Baruch Hu takes this into account.
And it is for that reason that I believe with every fiber of my being that all of the tefillos and all of the Tehillim and all of the learning that you guys did were so very helpful. Of course we know that it doesn’t always work out the way we want. It’s not magic. HaKadosh Baruch Hu has His plans, and as we said, He plumbs to the depths. But very often, baruch Hashem, we know, we know quite well, that our tefillos do work the way we want them to. Tefillos do help. Saying Tehillim does help. The learning does help. And in my particular case, I am extraordinarily, extraordinarily grateful to everyone here who learned and who took on other kabbalos. Some of the rebbeim contacted me and told me that different shiurim were doing different things, and people should keep on doing whatever they are doing. But to me, I believe that all this played a major role in my personal recovery. And again, I still have a little bit of a way to go, but baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem is all I can say.
We should all be glad that we have opportunities to help other people. And not just me. When you daven for somebody else, whoever it may be, daven because you care — daven because it means something to you. It may make a difference. Again, it doesn’t always work the way we hope it will, but a lot of times it does work. And I am extremely grateful that in my particular instance, baruch Hashem, it did work and it is continuing to work.
I again want to use this occasion to thank each and every one of you, literally from the bottom of my heart, with my fullest feelings, because I think you have made a difference in my ability to be back here today and, b’ezras Hashem, to be back as regular for the second semester — to be back in the Yeshiva. One of the roshei yeshiva in the college, Rav Yitzchak Cohen, shlita, said to me on the phone a few weeks ago that my place is in the Yeshiva – that’s my makom. Not in the hospital, not in the rehab center. That’s true. I feel that this is indeed my makom; this is my home. And together with you, I feel so privileged and so pleased to be able to be part of this yeshiva and to be partners with you and your growth in Torah and yiras shamayim. My berachah to each of you is certainly that no one here should ever have to undergo what I underwent, but if you ever have whatever tzarah, whatever trying situation you may confront in life, HaKadosh Baruch Hu should bless you with people who care about you, who will daven for you, and who will help you. Again, I thank you all very, very much. I wish you tremendous hatzlachah on all your bechinos and a wonderful vacation, and we will all continue beEzras Hashem to grow in Torah and yiras shamayim together.