Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"G-d, please bring back my son"

[Note: My shiur on Rav Kook's "HaShofar", a poem which we discussed last week, is now on-line here.]

Rabbi Moshe Alshich's son left Judaism; the circumstances are not recorded, although someone has written on the Alshich's Wikipedia page that he was "taken" and he became Muslim. The Alshich asked the Ari z"l for help, and the Ari gave him a kabbalistic prayer to recite, for Gd to help his son return. As the story is told by the Ari z"l's main student, Rav Chaim Vital, the son returned to Judaism.

Of course, the idea of praying for others' repentance is basic to Judaism; we do it all the time, such as in the blessing in the amidah which asks Gd to bring us back in complete repentance. And yet, the idea of praying for an individual highlights what we are really doing: We are asking Gd to hijack people's hearts, to change their minds. [This is more troubling than asking Gd to hijack my own mind, in which case it is not truly an act of hijacking at all.]

This raises philosophical questions:
• What happened to Free Will?
• What happened to the talmudic dictum, "All is in the hands of Heaven, other than awe of Heaven"?
• Of what value is repentance which is not only catalyzed by, but actually performed by, Divine intervention?
• And a child of the modern age may well be offended: Who are you to judge others, and pray to Gd that they be reformed?

I intend to speak about this in a pre-Selichos shiur on the first night of Selichos; for now, the prayer itself appears below, as it appears in three editions with significant variations.

1. R' Chaim Vital, 16th century Tzefat, Shaar Ruach haKodesh, pg. 24b
יחוד א' להחזיר את הרשע בתשובה והוא להר״מ אלשיך זלה״ה על אודות בנו שנשתמד ולמד לו מורי זלה"ה שיכוין ליחוד הזה להשיבו בתשובה והועיל לו ושב לדת ישראל: כבר ידעת כי בברכת השיבנו אבינו לתורתך שבתפילת י״ח היא בבינה הנק׳ תשובה ולכן בהגיעך בברכה זו בתפלתך תאמר תפלה זו קודם החתימה: יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו שתחתור חתירה מתחת כסא כבודך ותקבל בתשובה את פב״פ כי ימינך פשוטה לקבל שבים בא״י הרוצה בתשובה
The first yichud is to return a wicked person in repentance. This was for Rav Moshe Alshich, regarding his son who had assimilated, and my master taught him to contemplate this yichud to return him in repentance. It was effective for him, and he returned to the religion of Israel.
You know that the blessing of "Return us, our Father, to Your Torah" in shemoneh esreih is in the emanation of Understanding, which is called Return, and so when you reach this blessing in your prayer, recite this prayer before the end: "May it be Your will, HaShem, our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, that You tunnel beneath Your throne of honour and receive the repentance of so-and-so, for Your right hand is extended to receive those who return. Blessed are You, Gd, who desires repentance."

2. R' Zvi Hirsh Kaidanover, 18th century Vilna, Kav haYashar 5
וזה יאות לכל בר ישראל להיות זוכה ומזכה לאחרים, ומכל שכן שצריך אדם להתפלל על רשעי הדור שיחזרו בתשובה, כדאיתא בגמרא בברכות בברוריה דביתהו דרבי מאיר שאמרה ״יתמו חטאים״ כתיב, ולא ׳חוטאים׳. על כן אסדר אני לפניך לכל איש ואשה לומר יהי רצון זה בברכת ״השיבנו אבינו לתורתך, וקרבנו מלכנו לעבודתך״, ויאמר: ״יהי רצון מלפניך ד׳ אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו שתחתור חתירה מתחת כסא כבודך לתשובת פלוני בן פלונית וכל העוברים על מצותיך, יהופך לבבם לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם, כי ימינך פשוטה לקבל שבים, והחזירנו בתשובה שלימה לפניך, בא״י הרוצה בתשובה״
This is good for every Jew, to earn merit and provide merit for others, and certainly one must pray for the wicked of the generation to repent, as is seen (Berachot 10a) that Beruriah, wife of R' Meir, said, "It is written, 'May sins end,' not 'May sinners end.'" Therefore, I will arrange for each man and woman to say this prayer in the blessing of, "Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close, our King, to Your service."
He should say: May it be Your will, HaShem, our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, that You tunnel beneath Your throne of honour for the repentance of so-and-so and all who violate Your command. May their heart be reversed to perform Your will wholeheartedly, for Your right hand is extended to receive those who return. And return us with complete repentance before You. Blessed are You, Gd, who desires repentance.

3. R' Chaim Dovid Amar, 18th century Morocco, Tefillah l'Dovid, Hashiveinu #212, pg. 52a
כתב האר״י (שער היחודים דכ״ג ע״ג) מי שיש לו בן או אח או קרוב אחר ח״ו שהטה מדרך טובה לדרך רעה או שהלך לתרבות דעה, יתפלל בתפילת י״ח בברכה זו זה הנוסח, ואז מובטח שיהפוך לבו לטובה בעזה״י. וצריך להתפלל עכ״פ שלושים יום ערב ובקר וצהרים, ובפרט בימי אלול שאז הוא עת רצון, ומכ״ש על עצמו שצריך שיתפלל שיהפוך לבו לטובה. וז״ל: השיבנו אבינו לתורתך וקרבנו מלכנו לעבודתך והחזירנו בתשובה שלמה לפניך. יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו שתחתור חתירה מתחת כסא כבודך להחזיר בתשובה שלמה כל פושעי ישראל ובכללם תחזירני אני פב״פ ופב״פ בתשובה שלמה לפניך ד', כי ימינך ד' פשוטה לקבל שבים. ברוך אתה ד' הרוצה בתשובה.
The Ari wrote: "One who has a son or brother or other relative who has strayed from the good path to the bad or who is engaged in bad behaviour, Gd forbid, should pray this text in this blessing in shemoneh esreih. He can be certain that this will turn his heart for the good, with Gd's help. He must pray at least thirty days, evening and morning and afternoon, and especially during Elul, the time of desire. He certainly should pray thus for himself, that Gd turn his heart to the good.
This is the text: Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close, our King, to Your service. And return us with complete repentance before You. May it be Your will, HaShem, our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, that You tunnel beneath Your throne of honour to bring back in complete repentance all of the sinners of Israel. Among them, return me, and so-and-so, with complete repentance before You, for Your right hand, Gd, is extended to receive those who return. Blessed are You, Gd, who desires repentance.


  1. Rebbe Nachman says that you can cause someone to do Teshuva by judging them favorably and looking for their good points.

    ליקוטי מוהר"ן ח"א - תורה רפב - צָרִיך לָדוּן אֶת כָּל אָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

    דַּע כִּי צָרִיך לָדוּן אֶת כָּל אָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
    וַאֲפִילּוּ מִי שֶׁהוּא רָשָׁע גָּמוּר
    צָרִיך לְחַפֵּשׂ וְלִמְצא בּוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ הַמְּעַט אֵינוֹ רָשָׁע
    וְעַל יְדֵי זֶה שֶׁמּוֹצֵא. בּוֹ מְעַט טוֹב, וְדָן אוֹתוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת
    עַל יְדֵי זֶה מַעֲלֶה אוֹתוֹ בֶּאֱמֶת לְכַף זְכוּת
    וְיוּכַל לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ בִּתְשׁוּבָה
    וְזֶה בְּחִינַת "וְעוֹד מְעַט וְאֵין רָשָׁע וְהִתְבּוֹנַנְתָּ עַל מְקוֹמוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ"
    In other words, it appears that every Jewish neshama yearns to get close to the Almighty, but sometimes it is surrounded by klipot and cannot break through and see the Almighty's light. So by praying or elevating his good points, you are removing those layers that are constraining and preventing him, and now allowing him to CHOOSE to do teshuva.

  2. Sorry here is the Hebrew text again
    "דע, כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף זכות. ואפילו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש ולמצוא בו איזה מעט טוב, שבאותו המעט אינו רשע, ועל-ידי-זה שמוצא בו מעט טוב ודן אותו לכף זכות, על-ידי-זה מעלה אותו באמת לכף זכות ויוכל להשיבו בתשובה." (ליקוטי מוהר"ן, סימן רפב).
    English -
    Know! You need to judge every person favorably, even someone who is completely wicked, you need to search and find any little bit of good. By finding in him a little good and judging him favorably you actually bring him over to the side of merit and you can return him in teshuva (LM 282)

  3. Could we not be asking G-d to bring about the circumstances that might inspire him or her to do teshuva without interfering with free will e.g. a 'chance' encounter with a speaker who will inspire him or her? Although I admit that's not really what the Ari seems to be saying.

  4. And in the 20th century: There's an Igros Moshe about praying that sin, not the sinners, go away -- where he says we're not asking for tampering with free will, we're asking for improved circumstances. Chazon Ish holds yes, we're asking for interference with free will.

  5. Someone with free will senses various outside stimuli. If one outside stimulus is the idea that he needs to get back on track, he still has the freedom to respond appropriately to the idea or not.

  6. By the way, don't all Jews share a divine soul in some fashion? So praying for one another could be essentially like praying for oneself.

  7. The doctrine of arvut haddadit (shared responsibility?) means that we are all responsible for the sins and the teshuvah of every other Jew. This concept is expanded on an explained in Rav Kooks most important work(IMHO) Orot Ha Teshuvah (lights of repentance. It is no coincidence that we express or confession in the plural-ashamNU;BagadNU etc We have all sinned and we qask for atonement as a cpllective of individuals=Clall Yisrael.

  8. Eligalit-
    Thanks for posting that - but is he actually saying that my act of דן לכף זכות brings the person back? Or is he saying that this will enable me to see the good in him, and aid in his return?

    Daniel, Bob (1), Shalom-
    Certainly, one could pray for circumstances which enable repentance, but does praying for his mind to be "reversed" really sound like that?

    Bob (2), David-
    Indeed; and the Chazon Ish is cited as offering this explanation for how this prayer could work. Stay tuned for a recording of the shiur...

  9. That was a GREAT shiur. I didn't see a link to the actual delivered shiur in this thread so here:


    I'd offer one very slight variation and one comment to the Ben Ish Chai that God is being asked to provide a spark for potential penitents:

    Rather than God being asked to provide a spark, consistent with your comments towards the end of the shiur that we as individuals should do what we can to provide opportunities for others to want to do teshuvah, I'd suggest that an alternative would be God being asked to provide OPPORTUNITIES for teshuvah. In other words, rather than God putting thoughts in our heads, God is providing opportunities that we on our own can come to teshuvah thoughts on our own.

    After all, many of us are religious or not, observant or not, not because of any inherent makeup or what Outreachers call a pintele yid, but because of circumstances that presented themselves. We are products of opportunities and circumstances. Granted, how we react to those opportunities and circumstances may be due to our individuality. But I'm more comfortable with the notion of God providing opportunities than sparks.

    My comment is that indeed a spark is key. But I'm interpreting spark as a leap of faith. You can't prove the torah is divine, it takes a leap of faith. And once that leap of faith is made, we tend to hold fast to faith in spite of disconfirmatory evidence or other challenges.

  10. Hi Melech,

    Thank you!

    I agree that we are looking for HaShem to provide opportunities, a point also suggested by Daniel and Bob in comments above. But I think the Ben Ish Chai is looking for more...

  11. Remember, though, that "כי ימינך ד' פשוטה לקבל שבים -- for Your right hand, Gd, is extended to receive those who return." It would seem we're praying that G-d help someone who decided, or perhaps once they decide to return. We do not invoke G-d's "Desire" for repentance, but His readiness to receive those who do repent. Implied is that the sinner is taking the first step, and we're asking for His response to them.