The Talmudic Uncertainty Principle (34a -34b)

We read in yesterday’s  Mishnah that it is a heresy for the prayer leader to say “The good ones shall bless you” implying possibly that the congregation is made up of only “good” people. How would the prayer leader know? Just as we are commanded to express gratitude for everything (the good and the bad) so too is everyone obligated to do so (both the good and the bad). After all, it is  not always clear what is “good” and what is “bad” and consequently “who is good” and “who is bad”. While extreme cases are generally clear, the impact of actions of most “good” people aren’t consistently or unambiguously “good”. 

We also read about other errors that prayer leaders might make. There are those who prolong the prayers excessively while others abbreviate them too much. Prayers are skipped or recited incorrectly. Prayers of healing can be recited without appropriate intention or intensity. 

And then there is the choreography of prayer. When and how does one bow? Much is communicated in these non-verbal acts of prayer and they matter.

The prayer leader is in a position of great responsibility. 

And yet what remains a mystery is whether God hears any of these prayers, especially prayers for healing. Does God pay more attention to those who are close to God or to those who have been far from God and repent? A verse from Isaiah provides a context for four possible responses to this question. We read in Isaiah 57:19 “peace, peace, for the far and near, said HaShem, and I will heal him” suggesting initially that both those who are far from God and those who are near to God will have peace and be healed. But the Gemara is not satisfied with this simple reading. For example R’ Abahu said “In the place where penitents stand the completely righteous do not stand as it says ‘Peace, peace to the far and the near” with the Gemara explaining: “First God extends God’s greetings to one who was far and then repented, and only then to the one who was near all along”. 

But then the argument is turned on its head! The text continues: “R’ Yochanan would say to you: What is the meaning of far?  One who was far from sin all along. And what is the meaning of near? One who was near to sin and now drew away from it.”

So we learn that things that are not always what they seem! Prayer leaders make mistakes. “Good people” aren’t necessarily the “good ones. “Bad people” might not be all bad after all. Our understandings are partial, contingent, and often inconclusive. Great humility is required and much is at stake!

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