Rabbi Reuven Zail
(Chizkiyah continued) I have received a tradition from the house of my father’s father (King David), even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from requesting compassion.
(Talmud, Berachot 10a)
כך מקובלני מבית אבי אבא, אפילו חרב חדה מונחת על צוארו של אדם, אל ימנע עצמו מן הרחמים.
This passage in the Gemara conveys to us an encouraging message of hope and faith. Sourced from the Torah wisdom and life experience of our great leader and prophet, King David, we are reminded with powerful imagery that no matter how bleak, desperate and hopeless a situation might appear to be, we should not despair and refrain from beseeching Hashem for His rachamim (compassion).
A careful reading of the wording of the Gemara, however, might reveal to us an added layer of meaning and depth. The Gemara does not actually state that when the sword is pressing against one’s neck that one should not hold back from requesting Hashem’s compassion, which is the standard translation. Rather the simple reading of the Gemara is that one should not hold oneself back from rachamim, implying that one should bestow and express compassion in those dark moments. Who should be the recipient of one’s compassion at that time? The answer is oneself! This means that one should allow oneself to feel a deep sense of self-esteem and self-appreciation. Although according to the letter of the law it might be true that one may not deserve to be rewarded or rescued and that one has no legitimate sense of entitlement, one nevertheless should view oneself as a deeply worthy person, capable of appreciating Hashem’s kindness and love, should He choose to bestow it.
There’s a beautiful passage from the Book of Daniel that we repeat a number of times during the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur.
לֹא עַל צִדְקֹתֵינוּ אֲנַחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵינוּ לְפָנֶיךָ כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים׃
Not because of any merit of ours do we lay our plea before You but because of Your abundant mercies.1
While it seems that we are being self-effacing by downplaying our external merits, we are in fact highlighting, by contrast, a genuine sense of our intrinsic worth by appealing to Hashem’s compassion.
A person who calls out to Hashem in prayer is called a ‘Mitpalel’. The commentaries explain that the root of this reflexive word describes a process of self-assessment.
Not only should one reflect on one’s deficiencies in coming before Hashem, but to complete the self-assessment, one needs to accept and feel good about one’s own intrinsic value.
Perhaps this is what the Gemara refers to as a complete prayer, a ‘tefilah shelemah’, when describing what makes one prayer successful and another not. 2
If we are able to be compassionate to ourselves and perceive and appreciate our inner value, then we can approach Hashem with the hope that he will respond in kind with a similar outpouring of love to us.
1. Daniel 9:18
2. Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 18a