Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Two Types of Prayer

Avraham's powerful prayers to save S'dom and its sister cities occupy a significant portion of this week's Parasha (VaYeira 18:23-33). First, Avraham requests that all the cities be saved in the merit of even ten righteous individuals present in each of the cities. He then requests that at least some of the cities be saved in the merit of ten tzadikkim dwelling in them (see Rashi 18:29). Hashem answers in the affirmative - in theory. Unfortunately, though, righteous people were not to be found in any of the cities and they are consequently destroyed.

Yet we find that Lot, originally instructed by the angels to flee toward the region where his uncle Avraham lives, is fearful that Avraham's merits would place Lot in a negative light in the Heavens. He therefore beseeches the angels to spare one of the towns, Tzoar, and his request is granted (19:17-21 and Rashi). How astounding! Avraham Avinu, the towering spiritual giant, the one who rejected the negative influences of his entire generation where depravity and idolatry reigned supreme, the one who even attempted to draw these selfsame people to belief in the One and Only G-d,[1] prays for the saving of even one city and his prayer does not succeed. Lot, his nephew, who is only saved through his uncle's merits (19:29), who chose to live near the headquarters of sin, S'dom and its suburbs, prays and his prayer produces results!

Perhaps we can suggest a reason for this surprising difference. There are two types of prayer: one is based on a specific claim of justice, similar to a litigant or lawyer bringing a claim before a court; the other is based on a simple plea for Divine mercy. Avraham used the former form of prayer and Hashem answered him that his claim is a just one. The merit of ten tzaddikim could indeed save a city. But they were just not present. Lot did use any claim in his prayer. He just begged for Divine mercy. Hashem granted his request.

After S'dom's and its sister cities' destruction, the Torah tells us: "And Avraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of G-d. And he gazed upon the face of S'dom and 'Amora and upon the face of the land of the plain; and he saw that the smoke of the land rose up like the smoke of the furnace." (VaYeira 19:28-29). On a simple plain, the Torah is informing us of the tragic, dramatic moment when Avraham beholds the destruction of the cities he had beseeched G-d to save. His prayers had not borne fruit; the people had not repented and the G-d of Justice had meted out justice. Seforno interprets these passages differently: "ki chashav l'vakeish 'aleihem rachamim acharei shelo matza lahem z'chus badin" - "[he rose up to pray] for he thought to request mercy for them, since he was not able to find merit for them in justice." He comments on the second passage which describes Avraham's witnessing the utter destruction, "and he thus saw that it was too late to pray for them." According to this interpretation, Avraham himself sought to utilize the power of the prayer based on mercy alone just as Lot had done, but it was too late.

We can question why Avraham did not immediately resort to a request for mercy. Since this method was successful when used by Lot, it seems to be more effective in achieving results. Why then did Avraham first choose a prayer based on a specific claim of justice?

Hashem's main name, YKVK, refers to his quality of mercy. Indeed, Rashi (B'reishis 1:1) teaches us that without this Divine quality, the world could not continue to exist. Nonetheless, the first name of G-d used in creation is Elokim (B'reishis 1), representing the quality of justice. Only later on is the name YKVK introduced (ibid. 2:4). Rashi explains that Hashem originally planned to create the world with justice. When He saw that it could not survive on justice alone since Man is sinful, he combined mercy with it. Nonetheless, this teaching informs us that the goal of the creation of the world is to survive with justice. In other words, Man must earn existence through his actions. It is for this reason that the Gemara (Ta'anis 24b) informs us that the whole world survived based on the merit of R. Chanina b. Dosa, "Chanina b'ni". Since he was the perfect tzaddik, justice demanded that the world exist. All the other inhabitants received a "free ride" in his merit. Avraham first prayed a fundamental prayer wishing to save S'dom based on the primary quality of justice seeing whether S'dom could be saved based on the original Divine quality which was the original "plan" for the creation of the World.[2] True, the rest of the inhabitants would be saved based on an aspect of mercy, in the merit of the ten tzadikkim - if they could be found - similar to R. Chanina b. Dosa's merit saving the world, but at least an element of the initial plan of the world, based on justice, would exist. Lot, on the other hand (and Avraham also planned to do so according to Seforno), realized that no justice claim could be offered. He just begged, appealing to Divine mercy alone and was successful.

Rav Shimshon Pincus in his crucial seifer on prayer, Sh'arim BaTefilla, speaks of these two types of prayer (Chapters on Bitzur ff. and Chilui) and notes that for the most part, only great tzadikkim can utilize the power of the prayer based on justice or specific arguments.[3] Ordinary people can utilize other forms of prayer or claim-based prayers arranged by spiritual giants such as the Shemone 'Esrei authored by the 'Anshei K'nesses haGedola. Perhaps this is because only the righteous who live primarily based on justice (HKB"H m'dakdeik b'tzadikkim k'chut has'ara) can present claims of justice before the Heavenly Throne. The average person or even the wicked, who live primarily based on the Divine quality of mercy, pray based on mercy alone. As we see from Lot, though, the power of such prayer is very great.

We are certainly living in dangerous times. With threats on the population of the Land of Israel from all directions, economic slowdowns, many illnesses, and the recent "natural disaster" reminding us of the relative powerlessness of mankind, the centrality of prayer for mercy emerges as a very crucial, timely message. May we all utilize our tremendous privilege of beseeching our Creator for His abundant mercy![4]


[1] See Rashi to 12:5 and 20:1 first interpretation.

[2] Even the justice of G-d toward his creations is based on mercy since nothing forces Him to create a world to begin with in which Man could "earn" his reward. Furthermore, Man could never truly earn his reward since his actions do not affect G-d (see Iyov 35:7). Also see Derech Hashem (1:2).

[3] Compare the many stories of Rav Leivi Yitzchak of Berditchev along these lines.

[4] Also see Rachel's Weeping and Tefila B'eis Tzara (2002).

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