Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Opportunity of Prayer

When describing the options that God places before man, the Torah uses two different descriptions of them -- in Parashas Re'eh (Deut. 11:27-28) they are a blessing and a curse, and in Parashas Nitzavim (Deut. 30:15) they are life and death. Why do the options change from blessing/curse to the more severe life/death?

The Meshekh Chokhmah (Deut. 30:20) explains that in between the first passage and the second, the mitzvah of teshuvah (repentance) was given. People make mistakes and God recognizes that. Therefore, the result of sin alone is not death but merely a curse. However, once repentance was commanded, and we have the opportunity to undo our misdeeds, then the failure of someone who fails to do so is even worse than someone who merely sins.

Click here to read moreSinning alone leads to a curse but additionally failing to take advantage of the opportunity to repent greatly compounds the misdeed. While repentance is a great thing in that it can undo your sins, this very power is what makes ignoring it so dangerous. God has given you the ability to reverse your sin and you have repeatedly failed to do so. That is why the later passage has a much harsher way of referring to the sinful path.

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:3) writes that someone who on Rosh Hashanah is a beinoni -- has even merits and sins -- is given until Yom Kippur. If he repents, he is written among the righteous and if not, he is written among the wicked. R. Yitzchak Blaser (Kokhvei Or no. 5) asks why he specifically has to repent. Shouldn't it suffice if he does any big mitzvah?

R. Blaser answers that, particularly during the 10 days of repentance (Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur), God gives us the specific opportunity to repent and undo our sins. If someone fails to take advantage of the possibility, then not only does he not have the mitzvah but he is considered as if he turned his back on God and has greatly increased his sins.

R. Mordechai Willig, in a recent lecture in Baltimore (link - audio, beginning around minute 38), applies this lesson to prayer. Prayer is an incredible opportunity to communicate with God. If we do not to take advantage of it, this too is a great failure. Just like repentance is an opportunity to change ourselves and failing to do so is counted seriously against us, prayer is an incredible privilege and opportunity to connect to God (or better ourselves through prayer) and failing to do so is a terrible loss to ourselves.

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