Immediately after being informed of Hashem’s decision to annihilate Sedom, Avraham begins a plea for their survival. Avraham brazenly tells Hashem, “Chalilah Lecha MeiAsot KaDavar HaZeh,” “It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing!” (BeReishit 18:25). Avraham then asks that if righteous people exist in Sedom, the entire city should be saved due to their merits. He begins the negotiation at fifty righteous people, then forty-five, and continues his effort to spare the city until Hashem agrees to spare the city if there would be just ten righteous individuals.
Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:2) writes that a city whose sins outweigh its merits will be destroyed immediately, and quotes the destruction of Sedom as his source for this ruling. The Lechem Mishneh asks that if Sedom is the source for Rambam’s ruling, how then did Hashem agree to spare the city for a mere fifty righteous people? Surely if there were only fifty righteous individuals in the entire city, the total sum of the city’s sins would outweigh the merits of the fifty individuals! The Lechem Mishneh answers that while Hashem could and would destroy an entire city if its sins outweighed its merits, there is a solution. Tefilah has the capacity to change and wipe out that Din. Avraham prayed on behalf of the people of Sedom. Even though the Din mandated that there be destruction, Avraham’s Tefilah had the power to change and erase even HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s Din.
While the words of the Lechem Mishneh are powerful and should impact our perception of the power of Tefilah, his Chidush (Halachic novelty) is not limited to prayers that relate to the physical well being of individuals.
This idea is expressed in the spiritual realm as well. A person has the ability, through his Tefillot, to better his chances of succeeding as an Eved Hashem, God’s servant. Not only is this true regarding one’s own growth in Avodat Hashem, but it is also true regarding others’ growth as well. Our Tefillot also have the ability to affect our fellow man’s Avodat Hashem. The Gemara (Berachot 10a) records how there were some terrible people who caused Rav Meir much heartache. While he used to pray for their death, his wife, Bruriah, implored him to pray that they do Teshuvah. The Gemara states that Rav Meir followed her advice, prayed for them, and sure enough they did Teshuvah.
The Maharsha is bothered by a simple question. We know that “HaKol BiYdei Shamayim Chutz MiYir’at Shamayim,” “Everything is in Hashem’s hands except fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b and Megillah 25a). Yirat Shamayim is the one thing that is totally based on one’s own actions and decisions (BiYdei Adam) and is not determined or impacted by Hashem (BiYdei Shamayim). If so, asks the Maharsha, how could it be of assistance to daven (pray) for others (which is presumably asking for a change BiYdei Shamayim) to do Teshuvah (which is up to man as it is directly related to Yirat Shamayim)?
Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that while it won’t directly help to Daven for someone else to do Teshuvah, we can pray to God that He places that person into situations where he has a better chance of succeeding. We can Daven that Hashem gives him the necessary resources to do Mitzvot and keeps him away from things that might lead him astray.
However, I heard a different answer in the name of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former Rav of Jerusalem’s Old City, who explains that the potential of Tefilah is so potent that it is considered BeYedei Adam and not BiYdei Shamayim. Tefilah is too often said by rote, with skepticism about its effect. However, says Rav Nebenzahl, Tefilah is a powerful force whose capacity is considered to be BiYdei Adam. One who Davens for a fellow individual (and certainly for himself) is doing an action to effect change, not merely saying words that ascend to Shamayim and are sorted and filtered there. Tefilah is a tangible force with the ability to effect change in this world. (Rav Moshe, however, emphatically rejects this approach which was offered by the questioner, Rav Ephraim Greenblatt.)
We have seen that Tefilah has the ability to change Din, even of extreme proportions. It can also have a major impact on people’s spiritual well being. Hopefully, as we read of Avraham’s intense pleading with Hashem, we too will realize the power of our Tefillot and thus cause all the change that we hope for in this world. The Pasuk states, “BeRov Am Hadrat Melech,” “A multitude of people is a King’s glory” (Mishlei 14:28). The Maor VeShemesh writes that through the “Rov Am” – the many people who come together to Daven – “Hadrat Melech” – the King above will retract (the meaning of “Hadrat” in Aramaic) his Gezeirot Ra’ot (unpleasant decrees). Let us learn from Avraham and Bruriah to utilize our potent power of Tefilah to break the barriers and land our Tefillot onto the throne of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.