Legends from the Talmud
By Avi Lazerson
On of the more interesting stories related in the Talmud, in that of the famous Rabbi of the Mishna, Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir, who is one of the basic sources of legal opinion, was also known as a truly righteous man. He lived during those turbulent times of the Roman occupation and the destruction of the second Temple.
In the tractate of Brachot, it is related that in the vicinity of Rabbi Meir lived several men whose conduct was very improper and disturbing. They caused Rabbi Meir much pain - so much so that one day he began to pray to G-d that they should die.
His wife, Beruria, was a very learned woman, a very unusual thing during that period of time. She was known to have a sharp tongue. When she heard that her husband was praying that these misbehaving neighbors should die, she was distressed. She asked her husband what was the reason he was praying for their death. Does G-d want evil doers to die? G-d wants them to stop doing evil and live a proper and positive life. If you have the power in your prayers to cause them to die, then why not pray that they mend their evil ways?
Hearing his wife's logic, Rabbi Meir accepted her argument and prayed that they should improve their ways. His prayer was answered and the neighbors became righteous people.
Now this story seems simple enough with the first reading. But if we think a bit deeper about the story, we can ask several questions about it.
One, is why did Rabbi Meir want them to die. Rabbi Meir was from the wisest men of his generation. Certainly he knew that he could pray for them either to die or to mend their ways. Why did he choose to pray that they should die?
Secondly, if he had such power of prayer that his prayers were answered, why did G-d not answer him when he prayed that they should die? Why did G-d only answer him when he prayed that they should mend their ways?
In understanding these questions, we will see some very deep principles in prayer.
First, we must understand the difference between a blessing and a prayer. Although many people use these two terms interchangingly, there is a marked difference between them. A blessing, (Hebrew: beracha) is likened to a pool (brecha) of goodies waiting in heaven to descend through the supernal pipes (tzinor- the same letters as desire: ratzon). The contents of the blessing may be drawn down by our proper actions. However, a person can through improper actions cause the "pipes" to become clogged and the blessing is not forthcoming. Many people will go to a true tzaddik (holy man) who can aid them in drawing down this blessing.
A blessing is given to us by G-d, just as a father allocates an allowance for his children. If they behave properly, then it is there for them. If however they do not behave nicely, it is held back. Of course a child can plead with his parents to give him his allowance with promises of improved behavior. Similarly, we can also petition G-d to give us health, financial help, or what ever we need.
A prayer is different. A prayer is a vehicle for creating the blessing, the heavenly "pool" that we wish to receive. A prayer is a request that G-d should have a desire (Hebrew: ratzon) to create something that does not exist or to change an existing will on the part of G-d. If there is no rain, we beseech G-d to give us rain, i.e., to have a desire to create rain.
Secondly, it is always easier to force someone to agree with you than it is to convince them to agree with you. That is the reason that wars are fought with such vigor, yet peaceful processes are generally not fruitful in bringing about peace - two are needed to want to live together peacefully. To pray for the neighbors to die was easy compared to getting them of their own accord to change their behavior.
Using this bit of information, we can now begin to understand our Talmudic story. When Rabbi Meir prayed for his neighbors to die, he was trying to create a new desire in G-d. G-d does not want evil doers to die; G-d's desire if for them to repent. Therefore when Rabbi Meir began to pray to G-d for their death, he had tried to create this new desire in G-d. Not an easy chore!
When his wife told him that it is preferable to pray that they should repent and become good people. Rabbi Meir realized his mistake. He, too, wanted to repent for his poor judgement and action in requesting their death.
Now one great principle in life, that we mentioned above, is that G-d desires people to repent. If a man truly desires G-d's forgiveness for an improper action that he deeply regrets, G-d will certainly give it.
Rabbi Meir prayed that he himself should be able to properly repent. But he included in his prayers for repentance also his neighbors. As we said, G-d always desires repentance, so he sent down from heaven the ability to mend their ways.
From this we learn the importance of always seeking the best for your friends and neighbors. And that G-d always welcomes our decision to repair our own actions.
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