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26.02.2014 19:30    Comments: 0    Categories: Jewish thoughts      Tags: torah  life  purpose  rabbi shlomo aviner  

“Completing One’s Purpose on This Earth?”

Question: Why pray for the sick? Surely, the moment G-d decides that that person has

completed his purpose, he will die anyway!

Answer: This is a question with an embedded assumption that when a person

completes his purpose he dies, but there is no source for that.

One time at an Israel Independence Day or Jerusalem Day celebration at Yeshivat

Mercaz HaRav, they celebrated Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s eightieth birthday. Everyone

praised him and all that he had accomplished during his life.

HaGaon HaRav Shlomo Zevin rose to speak, and he said, “I do not agree with all the

accolades,” and he told how one time some people had approached Rabbi Menachem

Mendel of Kotzk the Kotzker Rebbe, with a sick child. The people described to the rabbi

how righteous, sweet and wonderful the child was, and, enumerating all his virtues, they

asked the rabbi to pray for him. The Kotzker Rebbe replied, “He’s not so special.” The

visitors were puzzled. Instead of arousing merit, the rabbi had spoken negatively. All the

same, the child was cured.

The Kotzker Rebbe explained that the Talmud states that Rabbi Tarfon’s mother came

to the house of study and asked, “Pray for my son, who is a great saint.” They asked her,

“How is he a great saint?” and she replied, “One time I lost a shoe and he put his hand under

my feet for me to walk all the way.” They then said, “That’s nothing. Even if he did a

hundred times that, he wouldn’t reach half the mitzvah of honoring your parents” (Kiddushin

31b). The Kotzker Rebbe asked, “Why did the Rabbis so belittle Rabbi Tarfon’s greatness?”

and he answered, “What Rabbi Tarfon did was on a very high level, meaning that perhaps he

completed his purpose on earth, and his time had arrived to leave. The Rabbis therefore

minimized his virtues, saying, ‘Rabbi Tarfon really did do something great, but it wasn’t

perfect.’” And that is what the Kotzker Rebbe meant regarding the child.

HaGaon Rav Zevin thus concluded, “Rav Tzvi Yehuda hasn’t done a thing.” Our

master, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook smiled. Rav Zevin then added, “He’s still got a great deal to

do,” and that’s how it was.

Yet this story has no source. True, the Kotzker Rebbe was himself a source, but the

story had no source in the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the earlier or later sages. It doesn’t

say anywhere that when a person completes his purpose, he dies.

The fact is that there are evildoers who die, and they certainly have not completed

their purpose, for it cannot be said that their purpose was to be evildoers.

Rather, a person dies when G-d decides that he is going to die, whether or not he

completed his purpose, hence he must strive to complete his purpose. From this we derive

that a person must strive to do as much as he can, for when his time arrives, he will pass

away. As the Talmud States: “When Rabbi Yochanan would complete the Book of Job, he would say as follows: ‘It is man’s fate to die, and an animal’s fate to be slaughtered. Everyone is fated for death.

Fortunate is he who becomes great in Torah and toils in Torah and brings contentment to his

Maker and earns a good name and leaves this world with a good name. Of him King

Solomon said: ‘A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of

birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).’” (Berachot 7a).

And here is what our master Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook writes in his “Olat Re’iya” prayer book, commenting on the end of the Shemoneh Esreh: “Before I was formed, I was unworthy: There was no need of me. I was created the moment there was a need of me. Yet now that I have been created, I am still unworthy, for I have not fulfilled my purpose.” (II p. 356).

So we see that a person’s fulfilling or not fulfilling his purpose is a matter of free will.

And if someone thinks that as long as he does not fulfill his purpose, he will not die, then he

will never die and he will live on forever. Yet we see that it doesn’t work that way. Rather,

people die when they need to die, according to a divine decision, whether they are righteous

or evil. One might ask: Isn’t there a proof from the midrashim about Moses and Joshua that

when a person fulfills his purpose he dies? As our sages said in the Midrash (Bamidbar

Rabbah 22:6): “It says regarding Joshua, ‘As I was with Moses, so shall I be with you’ (Joshua 1:5).

Joshua should have lived 120 years like Moses. Why did he live ten years less? G-d told

Moses (Numbers 31:2), ‘Take Israel’s revenge against the Midianites, and then be gathered

to your people.’ Although he had been informed of his approaching death, Moses did not

dawdle in fulfilling his task. Rather, he hastened with it, dispatching the forces (31:6). By

contrast, when Joshua set out to fight the thirty-one Canaanite kings, he said, ‘If I kill them, I

will immediately die, as occurred with Moses.’ What did Joshua do? He began delaying the

battle, as it says, ‘Joshua made war with these kings for many days’ (Joshua 11:18). G-d

responded, ‘Since you did that, I will shorten your life by ten years.’ And King Solomon

said, ‘Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but G-d’s design shall endure’ (Proverbs

19:21).” (See also Em HaBanim Semecha 3:51, where this midrash is quoted).

Yet what occurred there was quite out of the ordinary. One cannot create a prototype

from every example or pair of examples. Were this a general rule, our sages would have to

tell us so. The question thus remains, but has to be worded differently: “Why pray for a sick

person? After all, G-d has decided that in any case he is going to die – it’s not important why

– but it’s clear that G-d decides if someone is going to die. As we say during the Days of

Awe – ‘Who shall live and who shall die’.”

Indeed the Talmud states (Yevamot 50a) that G-d decides how long each person will

live. There is a dispute between the sages of the Mishnah. According to one view, if

someone has merit, his life is lengthened. If he has sins, his life is shortened. According to a

second view, if someone has merit, his life span is completed. If he has sins, his life is

shortened. In other words, according to the first view, his life is not entirely budgeted. Merits

can lengthen his life and sins can shorten it. According to the second view, one cannot add to

the years that G-d has assigned a person, but sins can shorten it. If time has been taken off

due to sins, merit can restore that time, but merit cannot add to what was budgeted.

The Tosafists ask: The Talmud (Moed Kattan 28a) states, “Progeny, life span and

sustenance do not depend on merit but on mazal [good fortune].” Does that not contradict the

preceding? Yet they answer that the Mishna in Yevamot is talking about very great merit,

enormous merit. And some ask: Does prayer add merit? Moreover, how can the prayers of one person

add merit to a second? Yet that is the principle of the unity of souls. Souls are connected. Some souls are

connected more, and some less. The Jewish People, family, friends. If someone increases his

own merit, that adds merit to the entire human race, so prayer really does add merit.

If someone increases his merit, does that necessarily mean he will live longer than G-d

decreed that he would? Sefer HaIkarim (4,8-9) has a relevant comment: G-d can make one of

three decisions: 1) He can decide you will find a treasure even if you make no effort to find

it. 2) He can decide you will find a treasure on condition that you make an effort to find it.

3He can decide you will find a treasure if you make an effort, and that treasure will be

commensurate with your efforts.

Sometimes G-d decides that a person will die, regardless of what he does. Nothing

will help him. Sometimes G-d decides that the person will live, regardless of what he does,

even if he is a terrible sinner. Sometimes G-d decides that it depends, and if he prays, or

others pray for him, he will live. It’s impossible to know what G-d will decide.

The fixed life span that G-d decides on can be influenced by various factors such as

great merit, as well as other factors that we are unfamiliar with. We do not know if our

prayers will help as far as what we ask, but we pray. Prayer is never in vain, and never

returns empty. It may be that one’s prayers will bring a different blessing, or that they will

help the petitioner in the World-to-Come. We do not dictate to G-d what to do. We just pray

humbly and beseechingly, and G-d does His will.

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