What We Don’t Pray For

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Based on the following quote, Rabbi Roth questioned whether one should pray for a miracle:

And one who cries out over the past (in an attempt to change what has already occurred) it is a vain prayer. For example, one whose wife was pregnant and he says: “May it be God’s will that my wife will give birth to a male child,” it is a vain prayer. Or one who was walking on the path home and he heard the sound of a scream in the city, and he says, “May it be God’s will that this scream will not be from my house,” it is a vain prayer (Berachos 54a).

Bartenura comments: 

A person prays about something that already had occurred, this is a vain prayer, for what has occurred, has occurred. 

Maimonides comments:

The future is possible; something can happen or not happen. Meaning, what has transpired, its time has passed. But one cannot pray on a matter that already was decreed (transpired). But one can pray for future matters.

In both cases, an event transpired: the embryo’s gender was set and (the scream reveals) tragedy occurred in the city. But considering that Joshua and Gideon prayed for miracles and both requests were granted, what is unworthy about a different type of miracle: praying to alter the past?

I considered: this prohibition means that such a prayer is an absolute wrong. It got me thinking about what are absolutes in Torah. Free will immediately came to mind: God never interferes with man’s choices. Man is to be the sole cause of his decisions and their outcomes, be they good or bad. Reward and punishment is another Torah fundamental and is directly tied to free will. The fundamental distinction of this prayer is that changing the past undermines free will. If results from our actions can be undone, this corrupts free will because if one can pray to reverse his decisions, he in fact has not committed to his decisions. His decisions are always in flux. If one can pray to alter the past, he can avoid reward and punishment. God’s will the man takes responsibility no longer exists. Thus, we cannot pray to alter the past.  

My friend asked: “Let's say the fire started naturally—not through an arsonist—how is that a problem with free will? In this case, I do not ask God to reverse a human’s decision. Why can’t I pray for a reversal of a natural fire?”  

The answer is that if a person is on the proper level, God protects him from all calamities. If he is a sinner, God may not shield him from a fire. Thus, events are fit for us and prayer to alter the past is improper; whether one does not suffer from a fire because he’s on a level of providence, or if he does experience a fire because he is not subject to God's protection. And since these are both good (i.e., protection and punishment) and come under the framework of reward and punishment, one cannot pray to alter history. Free will and reward and punishment are inextricably bound up with each other. My friend’s question was essential to this conversation. 

Finally, it is notable that there are only 2 examples given: natural (altering gender), and freewill (robbers causing victims’ screams). As all events are generated either by natural causes, or by man, only 2 cases are discussed.