Tefillah in the Face of the Pandemic and Financial Chaos
- Rabbi Nachman Cohen
- Mar 30, 2020
Pertinent tefillah thoughts during these turbulent times
In memory of our mother and grandmother
לאה בת שרה ע"ה
On her Yahrzeit, ד' ניסן
On most weekdays we recite Shemoneh Esrei 3 times. On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Yamim Tovim we recite 4 tefillot and of course on Yom Kippur 5 times. During a solar year, this amounts to about 1200 tefillot. A person who lives to the age of 80, assuming he begins davening 3 times a day at age 10, prays around 84,000 “Shemoneh Esreis” during his lifetime. Chazal tell us that when we davenאל תעשה תפלתך קבע. Each tefillah that we pray is to be unique. As circumstances change and during different parts of the year our prayers should reflect these differences. While the words of the berakhot are for the most part fixed, they often take on new meaning as our needs change.
No one can tell another how to direct his tefillot, as each person is an individual and is faced with unique circumstances, needs, and opportunities. Nevertheless, there are times when situations befall a community, or as in our present situation the entire world, where we find ourselves at a crossroad, and this presents us with the question of how we are to concentrate our kavanot when we daven.
I find that every tefillah, even those recited on the same day, and even when one davens Ma’ariv a short time after Minchah, calls for different requests and praises of the kindness that HaShem bestows upon us. Thus, there is no way to write a prescription for others of what their thoughts should be when praying Shemoneh Esrei. But at times such as we are presently experiencing, there are overriding concerns that face the entire community and, as a community, I humbly suggest, there are obvious kavanot that we should have in mind when davening. These kavanot should be in addition to our personal bakashot. What follows is but a sketch and it is up to each of us to fill in the rest.
The world is facing a pandemic and the possibility of a total financial collapse. We are certainly in uncharted waters. We have seen how easily our health and wealth can be very substantially impaired. Anyone with open eyes, comprehends that we, humanity, are not in control.רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה' היא תקום. In the end, it is HaShem who is the בורא רפואות and to this end we pray that He open the eyes of the medical community to discover His prescribed cure.
There is a well-known idiom: Whoever does not study history is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. In his farewell address, Moshe Rabbenu reminds us of this truth when he exhorts:זכור ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור.
To know what to pray for, we must know both where we are “on the curve” and what are our ultimate goals. We are experiencing a potential upheaval and a great disruption. Where to look, what to do? Fortunately, Chazal give us insight into patterns of recovery after a major upheaval. It reports that in general ̶ and this is the good news ̶ society will recover. The recovery takes place in seven stages. During Stage Six, the pre-Messianic era will begin, and Stage Seven will see the arrival of Mashi’ach. The amount of time between stages will depend upon the deeds of the society. The early stages of recovery can be difficult and arduous, but eventually Stage Five will be reached. At this stage, the world will witness a great economic recovery. Said recovery can be so great as to overshadow that of all other periods of wealth and prosperity. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the economic growth of many Holocaust survivors who escaped hell with nothing on their backs and went on to become exceedingly wealthy.
This general pattern has repeated itself many times in Jewish history. Stages One through Five have been replayed many times. But what we have not merited as a society is materializing Stages Six and Seven. What has prevented this? The Biblical answer is that once HaShem has made the world whole, the society no longer needs HaShem as its partner. שמנת עוית כשית. When wealth is attained, unfortunately, the Torah and its values are torn asunder and are mocked. Society falls back to the framework of the Tower of Bavel. People proclaim, explicitly or implicitly, “With our technology and scientific know-how we are invincible.” In fact, society is as invincible as the unsinkable Titanic. Civilization falls to the level of insanity as defined in the well-known quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Again, those who do not study history are doomed to repeat previous mistakes.
How do we make amends moving forward? The prescription is found in the Shemoneh Esrei. In it, Chazal has outlined what should be our goals and aspirations. While said often, our mouths and minds are often galaxies apart. We must remember that we are not really reciting words, but are praying for the realization of the goals for which HaShem created us. Thus, it is imperative that we internalize our goals and when we pray, that our essence becomes one with our prayers and this brings us to the point of דבקות בה', cleaving to HaShem.
Applying the foregoing to our present circumstance, I humbly suggest the following:
To overcome the catastrophic cycle that I traced above, when we recite the Shemoneh Esrei and pour our hearts out to HaShem, it is obvious that when we say רפאנו, we must pray that the pandemic dissipates, and pray specifically for those [we know] who have tested positive and those whose lives are very much at risk. Thereafter, when we recite the blessing of ברך עלינו את השנה בזאת we must have in mind that HaShem bless the remainder of this year to the point that the world is blessed financially and we return to the level of כשנים הטובות. If things follow in accordance with the Talmudic projection, this goal will be reached ̶ albeit, we can never know the timetable. Once accomplished we will have reached Stage Five.
What we aspire to after reaching Stage Five is crucial. It is at this point that we must pay special attention to the structure of the Shemoneh Esrei, for if we take it to heart we can hopefully change the course of human history.
Once we have health and wealth, what are our goals? Chazal, who structured the Shemoneh Esrei, instruct us as follows:
תקע בשופר גדול לחרותנו: Pray that HaShem will blow the shofar of redemption and return us to Israel ̶ as He engineered that all Israelis who were vacationing throughout the world had to return to Eretz Yisra’el this Pesach. Blessed are those who on their own have established themselves in Israel even before the Great Shafar has been blown.
השיבה שופטנו כבראשונה: We must pray that Eretz Yisra’el, the great gift that HaShem bestowed upon us, becomes a Torah state. That the judicial system of the Torah be reestablished.ומלוך עלינו אתה ה' לבדך that You HaShem alone will rule us completely with Benevolence and Mercy.
ולמלשינים על תהי תקוה: We must also pray that HaShem will neutralize all antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiments and will eliminate all hardcore incorrigibles [the Amalekites] throughout the world.
על הצדיקים: That HaShem should have mercy on the tzadikim and chasidim and the she’eirit hapeleitah, the remnants of Isra’el. May He bestow reward on all those who have complete confidence in Him (בטחון), and may our share be amongst theirs.
ולירושלם עירך ברחמים תשוב: We appeal to You, HaShem, please return and be manifest in Jerusalem. May it be Your Eternal home in which You rebuild an everlasting Beit haMikdash.
את צמח דוד: Please send us the Mashi’ach. It is His arrival that we await each day. [Let this prayer not be said in vein.]
If collectively, we truly desire all that which is detailed in these berakhot and do not merely mouth these words but understand our declarations and commit ourselves to effectuate these goals to the full extent of our abilities באמונה שלימה, then we can rightfully request,שמע קולנו ה' א-לוהינו ... ותחזנה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים ושם נעבדך ביראה כימי עולם.
The above is in full conformity to what I learned from our mother, לאה בת שרה, ע"ה. She was a woman who had true אמונה ובטחון בה'. Barukh HaShem, she successfully passed this on to her children. Whatever we are, have and will become is truly in her zechut.תהא נשמתה צרורה בצרור החיים.
In memory of our mother and grandmother, Leah Cohen - לאה בת שרה ע"ה - who had been the Dorm Mother of YU's high school dorm for 17 years - on the occasion of her yahrtzeit - ד' ניסן.