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by: Rabbi Avi Lebowitz
The Gemora inquires: What if the landowner said to the tenant-farmer, “Plant wheat,” and he went and planted barley, and then the greater part of the valley was blasted, and his barley too was blasted? Do we say that the tenant-farmer can claim, “Had I planted wheat, it also would have been blasted,” or perhaps the landowner can respond, “Had you planted wheat, the Scriptural blessing of “You will make a plan, and it shall be established for you” would have been fulfilled for me?
Rashi writes that the landowner counters by saying, “If you would have planted wheat, the field would have quite possibly been spared, for I was praying at the beginning of the year regarding a successful wheat crop; not for barley.”
The focus on the “beginning of the year” is that even though the landowner realized later that the farmer planted barley rather than wheat, and from the time of planting he was praying for a successful barley crop, he can still claim that before the planting season, he has already been praying for success regarding wheat, not barley, and perhaps it was that prayer that would have been listened to.
This idea that a prayer will only work for what a person is explicitly requesting, and not merely for what he was intending, can be traced to a Rashi in Chumash (Parshas Chukas 21:1). Rashi explains that the Amaleikites dressed as Canaanites so that the Jews should pray that the Canaanites should be delivered in their hands. Since in fact, they were fighting with Amaleik, their prayers would be useless.
The Mesech Chochmah makes the connection to our Gemora. He explains that even though they would have surely prayed against Amaleik had they known their true identity, tefillah does not accomplish when one is praying for the wrong thing.
We learn from here that when we daven, although it is important to make the tefillah specific (as we see from Chazal in the way they instituted the Shemoneh Esrei, asking for specific requests, not just “all good things” – this is also clear from Tosfos that if one davens very generally for success, it is not a strong tefillah, so Hashem is less likely to listen and he therefore has no claim, but when he davens for something specific, Hashem is more likely to listen and therefore he has a claim), we should leave our tefillos open enough, so that if we are mistaken about certain facts, the tefillah will still be applicable; rather than limiting the tefillah based on facts that will be realized to be wrong, rendering the entire tefillah futile.