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 embedded with an assumption: that when a person completes his purpose he dies. There is no source for that idea.
One time at an Israel Independence Day or Jerusalem Day celebration at Yeshivat Mercaz Ha-Rav, they celebrated Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s eightieth birthday. Everyone praised him and all that he had accomplished during his life.
Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Shlomo Zevin rose to speak, and said, “I do not agree with all of these accolades.” He then 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, 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 Tzadik.” They asked her, “How is he a great Tzadik?” 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 one's parents” (Kiddushin 31b). The Kotzker Rebbe asked, “Why did the Rabbis so belittle Rabbi Tarfon’s greatness?” 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.
Ha-Rav Zevin thus concluded, “Rav Tzvi Yehuda hasn’t done a thing.” Rabbenu Ha- 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 Mishnah, the Talmud, the Rishonim or the Achronim. 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. 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 Iyov, 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 Shlomo said: ‘A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of birth' (Kohelet 7:1)” (Berachot 7a).
And here is what Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Cohain Kook writes in his “Olat Re’eiyah” 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” (Vol. 2 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, and he will live on forever he is obviously mistaken. We see that it doesn’t work that way. 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 Moshe and Yehoshua that when a person fulfills his purpose he dies? As our Sages said in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:6): “It says regarding Yehoshua, ‘As I was with Moshe, so shall I be with you’ (Yehoshua 1:5).
Yehoshua should have lived 120 years like Moshe. Why did he live ten years less? G-d told Moshe (Bamidbar 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, Moshe did not dawdle in fulfilling his task. Rather, he hastened with it, dispatching the forces (31:6). By contrast, when Yehoshua set out to fight the thirty-one Canaanite kings, he said, ‘If I kill them, I will immediately die, as occurred with Moshe.’ What did Yehoshua do? He began delaying the battle, as it says, ‘Yehoshua made war with these kings for many days’ (Yehoshua 11:18). G-d responded, ‘Since you did that, I will shorten your life by ten years.’ And King Shlomo said, ‘Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but G-d’s design shall endure’ (Mishlei 19:21)” (See also Em Ha-Banim Semeichah 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 told 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. 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 reduce them. If time has been taken off due to sins, merit can restore that time, but merit cannot add to what was originally 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?
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. 3) He 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 receiving what we ask for, 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.