Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Prayer - Same Time, Same Place
Parshas Vayeira contains the destruction of the cities of Sodom and
Gemorah, despite Avraham's well-intentioned prayers for their
salvation. Avraham goes through a lengthy process of negotiations
with the Almighty, the basic result of which is that, assuming Sodom
has a minimum of 10 tzaddikim (righteous individuals), it will be
saved. Evidently, it did not. The next morning Avraham gets up, sees
from a distance that Sodom was burning, and returns "to the very
place where he had stood before Hashem" the day before when he
prayed (19:27). What is the significance of the fact that Avraham
returned to the same place?
Anyone who sets aside a steady place for his prayer, the
G-d of Avraham will help him. Furthermore, when he
dies, it is said about him, "What a righteous man! What
a humble man!" How do we know that Avraham set
aside a place for his prayer? As it is written, "And
Avraham arose early in the morning, [returning] to the
place where he had stood before Hashem." [Talmud,
The Gemara advocates setting aside a steady place from where to
pray. (I guess that kind of puts a damper on Shteibel-hopping!) The
fact that one who does so will merit the help of the G-d of Avraham,
who teaches us its importance, is readily understood. But why is such
a person called, "A righteous man - a humble man?" While the
element of permanence in prayer is certainly praiseworthy, in what
way is it humble? Furthermore, it seems somewhat strange that the
Gemara derives from this passage that "the G-d of Avraham will help
him," seeing that Avraham's plea for the saving of Sodom was
The story of Balak and Bila'am is well known. Balak, king of Moab,
hires Bila'am to curse the Jews on his behalf. They travel from one
spot to another in the desert, in each spot erecting an Altar and
offering sacrifices, in the hope that Hashem will accept their
"prayers." After each failure, Balak remarks to Bila'am, "Let us go to
another place - perhaps from there you will be able to curse them.
(See, for instance, Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13; 23:27)" For Bila'am
and Balak to accept the fact that perhaps their prayers were not
worthy of being answered was not a consideration. If their prayers
weren't being answered, there must be some external factor that was
preventing their acceptance. Perhaps by going somewhere else, their
evil incantations would somehow press the right buttons and make
the right connections, thereby enabling their curses to take effect. If,
instead of running around in the desert, they would have taken the
time to consider what they were doing, they might have come to the
obvious conclusion that it was not the place from where they prayed
that was deficient, but the people doing the praying, and the objective
of their prayers.
In their extreme arrogance, they simply couldn't fathom that perhaps
their entire mission was flawed from the get-go. "We will succeed! It's
only a matter of pushing the right buttons, and finding the right
place, and then everything will begin to go just as planned." The best
they could do was to keep trying different places until they hit the
Avraham likewise experienced failure in prayer. He had pleaded
desperately for the people of Sodom, yet it was to no avail. With the
exception of the family of his nephew Lot, who were saved in his
merit, the city was decimated. What went wrong? Where had he
failed? "Perhaps," Avraham thought, "I simply did not have the merit
that my prayers should be accepted. Am I so righteous and
meritorious that an entire city should be saved on my say-so?"
Perhaps, too, Avraham understood that despite all his well-meant
petitions, it simply was not meant to be. There was nothing that
could be done for the people of Sodom, and no prayer, no matter
how meritorious, was going to change that.
One thing was for sure: Avraham certainly wasn't going to place any
blame on the place from where he prayed, as if to say that had he
prayed somewhere else, maybe things would have turned out
differently. Instead of looking for exterior reasons for his failure, as did
Bila'am and Balak, Avraham focused within. "Either there's something
wrong with me, or there's something wrong with my prayer." In order
to make this crystal clear, Avraham returns to the same place he had
stood the day before. He prays once again for whatever that day's
needs were. In doing so, Avraham taught us the correct attitude
towards prayer: Always return to the same place. If there's
something missing and your prayers are going unanswered, don't
look for external answers like we are so prone to do. Look within; you
might find what's missing is really in you.
This is why, regarding one who sets aside a place for his prayers,
following the patriarchal example, it is said, "What a righteous man!
What a humble man!" His humility lies in his ability to "take the
blame." [Sha'arei Orah] Instead of pointing a finger at his
environment or his surroundings, the righteous man realizes that not
always will he merit that his prayers be answered, and not always will
he pray for the right thing. He feels not the least bit slighted or
snubbed, and returns time and time again to pray before Hashem,
despite past failures.
Prayer is an expression of our hope that what we perceive to be
good should come to pass. We recognize, however, that our very
perception of good may at times be flawed. In such instances, we ask
that Hashem not answer our prayers, but should rather do what only
He can know is truly the best thing. Avraham's prayers regarding
Sodom were answered. With the exception of his nephew, the answer
was "No." He had done all he could to attain what he thought was
the best thing; in this case he was wrong, which is perfectly okay, as
he had no way of knowing so. By setting aside a place (and time!) for
our prayer, we too merit the help of the Hashem, G-d of Avraham.
May He always answer our prayers in the way He sees fit!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by Mr. Myer
Laufer of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.