The Power of Prayer At Any Time
The holy Tanna Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Perkei Avoth 1:14). What does the last statement mean? What exactly is the issue with regards to doing something now? In the second chapter in Perkei Avoth, Hillel also stated: “Do not say, ‘I will study when I have free time,’ for perhaps you will never have free time” (ibid. 2:4).
The explanation is the following: It is obvious that the words of Hillel in the second chapter of Perkei Avoth (“Do not say, ‘I will study when I have free time’ ”) refer to Torah study. This means that a person has no right to say, “When I have the time, then I’ll study Torah,” for in that case he might not be able free himself to study when the time comes. We must therefore use every spare moment to study Torah, lest when the time comes and we want to study, various interruptions will prevent us from doing so.
The gaon Rabbi Israel Salanter Zatzal, the great master of Mussar, said that the words of Hillel in the first chapter of Perkei Avoth (“And if not now, when?”) as well as those in the second chapter (“Do not say, ‘I will study when I have free time’ ”) both refer to prayer. The book Al HaTorah cites Rabbi Salanter as saying: “A man must not say, ‘This time is perfectly suited for study and prayer, but that time is not. I can therefore take it easy now, for I have no energy or ability to focus, and I have no time to study. However when I do have the time, then I’ll study.’ ” Not at all! All times are suitable for Torah study and prayer. Every moment is convenient, and if not now, when? We must not neglect Torah study or prayer at any time.
Concerning which verse did Rabbi Salanter make such comments? He wrote them with regards to the first verse in our parsha: “I implored the L-RD at the time” (Deuteronomy 3:23). Moses prayed to the Holy One, blessed be He, at that time because he wanted to enter Eretz Israel. What time was that? Rabbi Salanter answers this question by saying, “It was not an exact and definite point in time, for all times are suitable for prayer, and we can arouse Hashem’s mercy at each instant.”
What does this pertain to? There are some among us who, when we ask them to pray for something (be it for sustenance, help in various predicaments, or for a health-related matter) they answer, “Not now. It’s not a good time to pray. We have to organize a special ‘prayer day’ and invite all the great men of the generation, for then the entire house of Israel will recite supplications before our heavenly Father and the gates of Heaven will certainly open and deliverance will surely come.” People who say such things simply do not understand anything about the power of prayer. They know absolutely nothing of its potency. They fail to realize that the gates of prayer are not tightly sealed. This means that the gates of prayer are open before the Holy One, blessed be He, at all times and at every instant – each day, 365 days a year – and it is possible at any time to implore Hashem, to ask and beseech Him for help. If the people described above feel that all these times are not suitable for prayer, it is because they believe that we cannot always ask G-d for help. Yet Moses himself did not wait for a special time to beseech G-d, for he began to pray as soon as he learned that he was not to enter Eretz Israel. We must therefore make such people understand that all times are good for prayer.
Concerning one of the tzaddikim of the previous generation, it is said that he would normally light the Chanukah candles in the presence of his servants and family members (not with his chassidim). One day one of his chassidim, who had been childless after seven years of marriage, came to see him before he lit the candles. He wanted to witness the Rebbe lighting the Chanukah candles in the hope that, just maybe, he would have a son by the power of these sanctified lights. His Rebbe, however, told him: “With the Holy One, blessed be He, every moment and all times are the same. There is neither Chanukah nor the month of Tammuz, for just as we can beseech Hashem before the Chanukah candles, so too can we beseech Him in the month of Tammuz.” As it turned out, a year and a half later – during the month of Tammuz no less – the wife of this chassid had a baby boy! This story clearly proves that we can indeed successfully implore Hashem at all times. We find an allusion to this idea in the verse, “For I have given you a tov [good] teaching, do not forsake My Torah” (Proverbs 4:2). The word tov has the same numerical value as the word hahu, which appears in the verse, “I implored the L-RD hahu [at that] time” (Deuteronomy 3:23). This means that Hashem sends tov (good) our way, and that all times and every moment is good for Torah study and prayer. It is forbidden for a man to delay his Torah study for another time or to say that he will pray later on. We must not give up. We must not neglect the time we have before us. We must pray and study now, as soon as the time presents itself. Rabbi Yochanan said with regards to this, “If only a man could go on praying the whole day!” (Berachot 21a). This is because the entire day is suitable in Hashem’s eyes for Torah study, and even more so for prayer. One day the disciples of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz asked him, “What does our teacher do before prayer?” He replied, “Before prayer, I ask Hashem for the ability to ‘pray at the time of prayer,’ for all hours are suitable for prayer. I therefore ask to be able to pray and take advantage of this good time for prayer.”
This applies to every generation. Furthermore, it applies not only to men, but to women as well. As we know, women are exempt from the duty to pray, yet many women still do so. No woman should think that she needs to pray at the same three times that men do, for all times are good for prayer. With regards to righteous women, it is said that when they prepared breakfast for their husbands, they said a special prayer from the depths of their heart. Is that not a prayer? Is such a prayer not accepted by G-d? It is as we have said: The power of prayer exists at any time. Therefore let’s take advantage of the moment!