Our Rabbis taught: It is told of R. Eliezer that he ordained thirteen fasts upon the community, but no rain fell. In the end, as the people began to depart [the synagogue], he exclaimed: “Have you prepared graves for yourselves?” Thereupon the people sobbed loudly. Rain fell.
It is also related of R. Eliezer that once he went before the Ark [to lead prayers] and recited the twenty-four benedictions, but his prayer was not answered. R. Akiba went down [before the Ark to lead prayers] after him and exclaimed: “Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”), we have no ruler but You; Avinu Malkeinu, for Your sake have mercy upon us!” Rain fell. The Rabbis present suspected [R. Eliezer], whereupon a bat kol (heavenly voice) was heard proclaiming: “This man [R. Akiba] was answered, not because he is greater than the other man [R. Eliezer], but because he is always forbearing and the other is not.
With Sukkot, we add to our daily prayers a petition for rain. For people living in the 21st century, we cannot avoid asking: Is prayer efficacious? In other words: do our prayers accomplish anything? Do they change the world beyond us? Do they change us?
The context for these the story about R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and R. Akiba is a discussion of what to do if drought or disaster threatens the community. The mishnah (on Ta’anit 15a) tell us that a variety of rituals were enacted, including moving prayer services out of the synagogue and into public space, adding six extra blessings to the Amidah (bringing the total to twenty-four), and this:
When they stand up to pray, they place [as prayer leader] before the ark an old man who knows the prayers well, who has children, and whose house is empty [of food], so that his heart is concentrated on his prayer…
We have two stories about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, a tanna who lived in the first and second centuries. He was one of the five primary disciples of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish community at the time the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. We are told in Pirke Avot 2:11 that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai likened R. Eliezer’s mind to a plastered cistern that never loses a drop of water. It’s a beautiful image because Torah is mayim chaim, life-giving water; R. Eliezer retained all the Torah he ever learned. Rabban Yochanan also said, “If all the Sages of Israel were placed on one scale of a balance, and R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus on the other, he would outweigh them all” (PA 2:12). R. Eliezer is a gold-medal, rabbinic heavy-weight.
In the first story, R. Eliezer has taken the extraordinary step of ordaining thirteen fasts. Things must be dire. The fasting does no good, so R. Eliezer warns the people, in essence, “Do you realize that if your prayers are not sincere and heartfelt you’re going to die?” Their cries to heaven are sincere and heartfelt—they do the trick because they are sincere. The mishnah (cited above) prescribed a way to find a prayer leader whose prayers for mercy are sincere. It would seem that sincerity is a crucial ingredient for efficacious prayer. Recognizing this, R. Eliezer evokes sincere prayer from the people.
Why doesn’t God respond? It’s as if God says, “I didn’t answer because I didn’t really hear you ask.”
In the second story, R. Eliezer leads the prayers and inserts the extra blessings to address the grave situation of the community resulting from the drought, but with not effect. R. Eliezer’s well-known arrogance may be the underlining factor: he sets himself apart from others, even his own colleagues (Baba Metzia 58-59), diluting his sincerity despite his greatness. Heaven does not respond; rain does not fall.
R. Akiba next takes a turn leading the prayers and rather than projecting his own sincerity and compassion, he invokes God’s compassion and sincerity. He addresses God as “Avinu Malkeinu” (lit. “our father, our king”)—the first time this appellation is used. The phrase “Avinu Malkeinu” calls on God to feel the people’s pain, as parents experiences the pain of their children, and to respond to their needs, as parents respond to the needs of their children. The other rabbis present are suspicious. R. Eliezer is a wonder-worker. Perhaps he used his powers to make it rain? But no, heaven settles any doubt by declaring that R. Akiba’s prayers worked because of his character: R. Akiba is patient and forgiving.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Lurking beneath the surface of these stories—and much, if not most, of Talmud—is a theology that holds that God hears prayer and can be an active agent in the world, responding to the actions of people, if God choose. Is this your theology? If not, how do you understand God? If God does not “hear” and “respond” to prayers in the traditional sense, what is the value of prayer and how might it be used in one’s spiritual life?
- R. Akiba is patient and forgiving. R. Eliezer, in contrast, is impatient, strict, and demanding. This seems to introduce the notion of middah k’neged middah (measure for measure): It takes a person who is patient and forgiving to inspire and evoke that quality in God. How does our behavior toward other people influence their behavior? Can we “bring out the best” or “bring out the worst” in others by how we operate?
- It is possible to read these stories as a commentary on those who separate themselves from the community’s needs, concerns, sorrows, successes, and joys. The fasting did not work until the people felt the pain of others. R. Akiba’s prayer reached God because he was deeply connected with the community and inspired God to be likewise. In contrast, R. Eliezer ordained fasts and inserted prayers. Could it be that these were merely pro forma rituals for him? Do you find it difficult to pray with sincerity? What helps?
(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman