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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What Happens to Unanswered Prayers?

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a wasted prayer.

Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

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Tabby Refael
Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

At 8:39 p.m. on April 25, the texts and tweets began appearing on my phone: a six-year-old boy named Menachem Goldberg was missing. A reference photo showed the little boy wearing a kippah and tzizit, smiling from ear to ear as he held a Star Wars figurine still in its box. He looked so small and innocent, and my heart sank down to my feet.

At 8:40 p.m., friends started sending me and hundreds of others links to Tehillim (Psalms) on WhatsApp group chats, along with Menachem’s full Hebrew name and that of his mother (according to the Jewish custom for praying for someone’s health and safety).

At 8:45 p.m., texts continued to entreat members of the local Jewish community to search for “Menachi,” as his family called him. It was dark and cold. Hatzolah had dispatched helpers to specific areas, but there already were so many people at the scene to help that they caused a major traffic jam.

And then came three-word texts via group chats from people whom I’d never met: “On my way,” “Be there soon,” and “I just parked.” From all over West Los Angeles, Jews, especially men young and old, left their homes to search every crevice of Hancock Park in a desperate attempt to find Menachem. Some of them didn’t even know him or his family.

I’ve seldom prayed so hard in the course of a few minutes’ time. Although I don’t know Menachem’s family, I started reading verses of Tehillim I’d never read before, and I even considered giving to tzedakah on his behalf. Others learned Torah in the merit of his safe return. Countless people begged chat groups to update them if and when the boy was found. For a few precious hours, “Menachi” — his safety and his very life — belonged to all of us.

“I didn’t even know that so many people were involved until later,” Sarah Goldberg, Menachem’s mother, told me. “I started to see lines of people around the block. I felt like it was a whirlwind…like achdut (unity), because everyone was coming together with the sole purpose of finding my son.”

Was Menachem the only missing child in Los Angeles at the time? Sadly, no. But I was receiving constant notifications about him. His picture was etched in my mind that night, and I couldn’t fall asleep until he was brought home safely.

Outside Menachem’s house, police helicopters illuminated the night sky while fellow concerned Jews stood and prayed. Police dogs walked alongside officers, and television cameras caught footage of the desperate search. Neighbors were asked to review footage from their outdoor security cameras for any sign of Menachem.

I looked at photos of the masses gathered on Orange Drive in utter gratitude and amazement. Whoever heard of such a rapid community response? Frankly put, any parent around the world whose child had gone missing would have been incomparably lucky to have had such a unified and concerned search party.

“I feel sick to my stomach,” I told my husband, echoing the sentiments of many in the community, especially mothers. “How am I supposed to fold laundry while children are missing?” There was only one thing to do: I went into my kids’ room, where they were fast asleep, and squeezed them until their eyes bugged out and they begged me to let them go back to sleep.

And then, at 10:20 p.m., the text we all were waiting for arrived: Menachem had been found. At home. In his mother’s closet. Holding an iPad.

The whole house had been thoroughly searched earlier, without a trace of Menachem. When he was found, Jews danced in the street outside his home. After hearing the good news, I tried to decompress by observing that I hadn’t seen so many Jews all rush to one place since the night Passover ended a few weeks ago, when there was a caravan outside of the Krispy Kreme in Santa Monica.

It was better than anyone could have imagined. If Menachem had been found safe in the street, that would have been good enough. But he had been in the safety of his own home all along.

This column could have been entirely dedicated to the unique and amazing nature of the Los Angeles Jewish community. But the incident with Menachem really got me thinking about prayer.

Worrying about what’s happened to a missing child magnifies pre-existing tendencies in all of us: Those who identify as spiritually connected immediately turn to religion in times of trouble and many Orthodox Jews quickly open a book of Tehillim and plead with God to show mercy (some already have Tehillim saved on their phones); those with anxiety disorders (myself included) develop even more anxiety, imagining worst-case scenarios and even projecting our anxiety onto others.

Were our collective prayers that Menachem be brought home safely answered? Yes. Except he already was home and just needed to be found. So what was the point of all that Tehillim and prayer?

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a wasted prayer. My starting point for being an observant Jew is the admission that I don’t understand God’s ways. And while I can’t assume anything, here’s what I like to think about the thousands of prayers (and good deeds) that were offered on behalf of Menachem: They’ll be saved for a spiritually rainy day, whether for him or, yes, even for someone else.

Perhaps those prayers and deeds will reverse a future harsh judgment for another person; perhaps they’ll ensure that Menachem and his family have a healthy and safe rest of the year; or perhaps at around 9 p.m. last Sunday night, thousands of Jews in the City of Angels were simply meant to pray.

According to Sarah, she, her husband and their children have been dealing with illness in the family for a few years. “Because of that, I’ve trained myself to really hone in on my emunah (belief) and bitachon (trust),” she said. “There have been so many intense situations because of the illness for a long time, so when this happened with Menachem, I immediately went to a place of trust in Hashem.

“We’re so thankful to the community,” she continued. “It was so heartwarming, especially because we didn’t even know the majority of the people.”

My maternal cousin — a mother of three small children and a skilled, compassionate pediatrician — was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early forties. An entire community, including those in her family, synagogue and neighborhood, as well as thousands who didn’t even know her, prayed for her recovery. Her family took on more mitzvot on her behalf. I took on more mitzvot. We prayed until we were blue in the face. And in 2015, she succumbed to cancer.

What happened to all those prayers? Where did they go? Were they unanswered?

If you ask my family, who still feels tremendous pain over my cousin’s loss, they’ll tell you that sometimes, prayers can feel unanswered. And yet, we believe that in our deeply limited understanding of God, prayers are not unanswered but redirected. Perhaps those prayers accompanied my cousin in the next world; perhaps they protect her children today. Perhaps they helped save another young mother who could have used a few more prayers.

A friend recently confided in me that she had heard an acquaintance was sick. My friend read Tehillim for this person every day. “I didn’t know the person had eventually died,” she told me, “so I kept praying for her for an entire week after she had passed because I didn’t even know.”

Were those superfluous, wasted prayers? I believe there’s no such thing. But that’s the thing about prayer: God isn’t a vending machine. One can’t read three different verses of Tehillim, push a button and order a Coke with a side of health. Rather than a cosmic vending machine, I like to see God as an ATM: Every prayer, every good deed and every moment of sincere remorse on our part is like a small deposit in our spiritual bank accounts. Even if we seldom “touch” those spiritual funds or feel their positive effects for years, they’re still there. Over the course of just one day, we all deposit and withdraw spiritual currency from the bank accounts of our luminous souls.

Every prayer, every good deed and every moment of sincere remorse on our part is like a small deposit in our spiritual bank accounts.

“The Third Lubavitcher Rebbe, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek, taught about how people can make miracles,” said Sarah. “He believed that you have to think positively. Think good and it will be good. It’s so simple, but so profound.”

As the frantic search for Menachem ensued, Sarah envisioned her son being well and smiling. When her husband began to tear up, she reassured him that they had to “stay strong and stay positive.” Sarah also believes that reciting Tehillim has indescribable power. “Everything that happens to us is from Hashem,” she said. “We don’t know why things happen. But we should keep positively picturing what we want to see.”

As it turned out, Sunday night was Pesach Sheni, the “Second Passover,” which marks a day when those who were unable to bring a Passover offering beginning a year after the Exodus from Egypt could partake in the mitzvah. Many Jews eat matzah on this day and light a candle for the yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha’ness, the Jewish sage known as “the Miracle maker” whose name, amazingly, is associated with finding lost objects (and, one wonders, lost people). Pesach Sheni is a literal symbol of second chances through teshuvah, which unfortunately is often mistranslated as “repentance.” But the real meaning of teshuvah is “to return” — to return to one’s perfect soul and try and live to its highest potential.

That’s why Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch rightly said, “The Second Passover means that it’s never a ‘lost cause.’” I can’t think of a better return than that of little Menachem to his mother and father’s arms. And for a few brief hours, he managed to do the unthinkable: unite Jews.

“I didn’t know what the result of searching for Menachem would be,” said Sarah. “I just kept praying and thinking positively. My main message for the whole community is that we have to strengthen our bitachon so we can bring Moshiach. We should take a lesson from all this to all join together because we’re all Am Israel (the Jewish people). When we join together, the power and unity is just incredible.”


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby

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