Do Unanswered Prayers End Up in G-d’s Trash Can?
I thought that if I nagged enough, I would get what I want. In fact, nagging the Almighty is even echoed in our prayer book:
“Hope in G‑d, be strong and let your heart be valiant, and hope in G‑d.” (Siddur Tehillat Hashem, p.78)
This passage is from King David’s Psalm 27. ‘Hope in G-d’ is stated twice to teach us to pray continually and that we must never despair that our prayers will remain unanswered.
Each day, I would pray to G-d for the things that every mother asks for her child. I prayed that my son Jacob would have a good career, marry a wonderful girl, and have healthy children. I wanted him to have a good life, a life filled with Torah and mitzvos. I asked for these same things everyday. I always hoped that G-d would grant my request if only to stop my nagging. Unfortunately, my plans for Jacob were not the same as G-d’s plans. After twenty-four years of life in this world, He took my son’s beautiful soul back to Heaven. I felt that all my heartfelt requests for Jacob over the years came to nothing.
Then I started thinking about my prayers for others that have not yet been fulfilled. Some of my friends have unmarried children and I pray every day that these wonderful people should find a spouse. I’m reciting the names of these same people to G-d over and over and nothing happens. They remain single, still searching for a mate. There was a time I was praying for someone to be healed only to discover the person passed away the day before. Are these prayers said in vain?
It looks as if G-d is saying ‘no’ to my prayers or ignoring them entirely. I feel as if there’s some huge trash can in Heaven filled with my prayers.
What Our Rabbis Have To Say About Unanswered Prayers
Rabbi David Rosman, director of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, presents an interesting insight on what prayer accomplishes. The word for prayer in Hebrew is ‘tefillah’ which comes from the root word ‘palel’ which means to connect. Thus, the purpose of prayer is to connect with G-d. Rabbi Rosman says when we articulate a sincere prayer, we have made this connection. Our prayers are thus deemed successful.
But there is a much deeper meaning to be learned from seemingly unanswered prayers.
Our Rabbis teach that what appears as a ‘no’ answer doesn’t mean the prayers were just ignored and cast aside. Each and every prayer is answered positively in some way at some time.
G-d Answers Our Prayers Immediately Says the Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, says that as soon as one prays, the prayer is answered. I think ‘answered’ in this context means that once G-d hears our prayer, He has determined how and when this prayer will be fulfilled and this fulfillment may be entirely hidden from us.
King David Tells Us G-d Stores Away all Our Prayers
King David says in his Psalm:
“…place my tears in your flask. Are they not in your record?” (Psalms 56:9)
King David is telling us that every single prayer is saved until they it is needed to fulfill G-d’s purpose. Since we don’t see G-d’s plan, we don’t know where, when, or how our prayer will be fulfilled. For example, my prayers that Jacob should get married and have children may be saved for a grandchild or a great-grandchild. My futile prayer for that sick person may very well be stored and saved till another sick person needs healing. And I have to understand that my requests may not necessarily be realized for me, my family, or my friends. My prayers could very well go to a person I never met.
No Prayer Goes Unanswered Says the Steipler Gaon
In the book ‘A Letter For The Ages’, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer says that all prayers are ultimately answered. He recounts that when Rabbi Shneur Kotler (1918-1982) was critically ill, his students visited the holy Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky (1899-1985), known as the Steipler Gaon. The Steipler was a giant in Torah learning, well admired and respected by all who knew him. The students expressed their discouragement about Rabbi Kotler’s illness. Although many people were praying for Rabbi Kotler to recover, his condition only worsened.
Rabbi Kanievsky emphatically replied that no prayer goes unanswered:
“Do not be dismayed. There is no such thing as a sincere prayer that goes unanswered. Any heartfelt request addressed to God must be answered. It can’t be otherwise. If it is not answered today it will be answered tomorrow. If not tomorrow it will be answered in a week. If not a week, in a month. If not answered in a month it may be answered in a year, or in ten years, or in one hundred years or more. If your prayers are not answered in your lifetime they will be answered for your children or for your children’s children. We cannot say for sure when a prayer will be answered, we can rest assured only that every prayer will be answered somehow, someday.”
A No Answer Doesn’t Really Mean No
There’s really no such thing as a ‘no’ answer from G-d. Not one prayer is cast aside. Every single prayer is heard and will be answered. As it says in our daily prayers:
“…You are G-d who hears prayers and supplications, do not turn us away empty handed from you, our King, for you hear the voice of everyone.” (Siddur Tehillat Hashem, pg.50)
Now I know that all my prayers for Jacob weren’t for naught. Because of my prayers, someone, somewhere, is going to have a good career, get married, and have healthy children. This person will live a beautiful life, the life I wanted for my son. So if Jacob couldn’t receive these blessings, at least someone will. So to answer my original question: ‘Where did all my prayers go?’ They went straight to G-d, and I know He will put them to good use.