Midrash Tanchuma relates an impassioned story the may just affect the way you pray on Yom Kippur or any other day of the year:
(NOTE: If you read this after Yom Kippur – as Parshat Haazinu falls out this year, it’s not too late to put this lesson into practice. According to Rabbinic sources, our final judgement for the year is actually held over until Hoshana Rabba).
Once upon a time there was a wealthy man with a daughter who was both pious and attractive. Unfortunately, on her wedding night her husband passed away. And so it was with her second husband. When it happened a third time she realized, with great sorrow, that she can never marry again, until G-d will show her a sign that her mourning has come to an end.
The Wealthy man has a brother in another country with 10 sons. They worked very hard cutting down trees and selling lumber. Despite their efforts, they struggled to put food on the table. The oldest son, sensing the pain of his father over their desperate situation, prayed to G-d for assistance and resolved to visit his rich uncle. The young man was warmly received at this uncle’s house. After he settled in and felt comfortable he mustered the courage to declare that he wanted to marry his cousin. Everyone began to cry. They explained that he was putting his life in danger. His uncle offered him a large sum of money, but the young man insisted on going ahead. The young woman agreed. The parents reluctantly proceeded with the wedding.
Among the guests that arrived was Elijah the Prophet, disguised as an old man. He took the groom aside and advised him that a hideous-looking, poor man will show up at the wedding. When the groom sees this man he must show him great honor and give him food and drink. Sure enough a man who fit this description appeared and the groom seated him in a place of honor and provided him many delicacies. After the ceremony the unsightly-looking man took the groom aside and informed him that he is the Angel of Death and the young man will die that night. The groom pleaded for one year of marriage, but the Angel of Death would not even grant him one day. The groom asked permission to say goodbye to his bride. This request was granted. When his bride heard the news she told him that she needed to speak to the Angel of Death alone. She approached the unsightly old man and told him that under no uncertain terms can he take her husband because it would constitute an explicit violation of a verse in the Torah. To do so would be blasphemous:
When a man takes a woman for a wife, he shall not be conscripted in the army nor be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt for one year so he can be home to bring joy to his wife that he has married” (Deuteronomy 24:5), (She added): And the Holy One, blessed Be He is true and His Torah is true
But the bride did not stop there. She threatened to take the Angel of Death to a heavenly court if he dared repudiate the truth of the Torah by taking her husband’s soul that night.
if you take his soul, you will make the Torah a fraud. Therefore if you accept my words, all is fine. But if not, come with me to the great heavenly court.
Her stirring words reached the heavens and G-d himself intervened and rebuked the Angel of Death, who immediately departed. In the middle of the night her parents got up assuming they would once again have to dig a grave. To their surprise the groom was still alive in the morning. When the word spread, the whole community celebrated together.
There is certainly a precedent for this kind of prayer in the Torah. After all, when G-d wanted to wipe out the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham protested strongly:
“Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
Abraham would have succeeded had there been ten righteous people.
Another example of a strongly worded prayer is when Moses argued with G-d to save the Jewish People after the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses contended that if calamity befell the Jews it would be seen by the Egyptians as a desecration of G-d’s name.
“Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus 32:12)
Why didn’t Elijah the Prophet save the day? Or did he?
Getting back to our story, one may ask what did Elijah the Prophet’s advice accomplish? Why didn’t Elijah simply perform a miracle and everyone would live happily ever after?
Elijah did save the day.
He provided the groom, and even more so the bride, the opportunity to confront the Angel of Death and plead for life. Which is not so different than what we are doing on Yom Kippur. The bride was able to vanquish him through passionate arguments, born of great pain and grounded in the truth of the Torah.
Midrash Tanchuma is telling us that we too should plead our case based on truths of the Torah and not on whimsical or superficial desires. Because by doing so we can tap into a power that G-d has embedded in prayer.
The power to alter our own reality.