I’ve been saying kapital nun (chapter 50 of Tehillim) daily for a while now. Many people in our community have also been saying it daily, as part of a series of prayer and mitzvah initiatives for Rivkie Barber OBM, who passed away on Friday (in New York) after multiple battles with cancer. Many were shocked to hear the news in shul this morning (Shabbos), especially as it punctuated a community in the midst of celebrating several weddings.
I was discussing Beth Rivkah’s planned response to students – particularly the cohort in the same grade as Rivkie’s daughter, and the group Rivkie taught last school year – with the headmaster, and he commented that in the middle of the meal on Friday night, he and his guests all paused to say kapital nun. His remark hit me like a ton of bricks. Tomorrow, I will continue to say kapital nun, and will continue for several months, and then proceed to kapital nun aleph, and so on IYH U120. But all those who took it on as an extra prayer for Rivkie will stop.
My kapital nun today was full of emotion for the loss of someone so young; someone with whom I shared chapters of Tehillim for the 49+ years that our lives overlapped.
As the community rallied in recent months with campaigns for Rivkie’s health – Tehillim groups, challah baking, mivtzo’im and so on – I grew despondent with regular reports of her prognosis. As her situation become more dire, the campaigns escalated and took on a greater urgency. The realist in me started to wonder about the nature of our prayer and how we might view them when what appeared to be inevitable actually happened.
I recall the funeral some months ago of someone in their 60s who also battled cancer for several years. In his eulogy, the Rabbi exhorted those present that our prayers were not enough to save him. His personal insight into the effect of our prayers truly reviled me. For all we know, I thought, perhaps it was our prayers that extended his life by another few weeks, months or even years? Who are we to know God’s plans? Who are we to know what would have happened?
So what to make of our prayers? And should our approach, or our expectations, change when the medical situation changes to hopeless? When someone is terminally ill, or in a coma from which they will not awaken, what should we pray for?
This really goes to the essence of prayer itself. While sometimes we pray with a specific desired outcome in mind – be a parking spot, a good shidduch, financial prosperity, or someone’s health – what we are always doing is communing with God. And while we cannot expect an outcome without creating an appropriate vessel for God’s blessing, just the act of prayer itself is beneficial to our souls, and the souls of those for whom we pray.
While we grieve the loss of a friend, mother, and teacher and feel for those close to her, we cannot know what could have been if there was one more or less chapter of Tehillim said, or one more or less mitzvah done in the campaign. What we do know is that the mitzvos we did take on for her benefit, certainly were for her benefit. Surely the zechus of all these has in some way eased the journey of her soul to its eternal resting place.
May her memory be a blessing.