Our sages tell us that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was well aware of the efficacy of his prayers (M. Berachot 5:5). When he would pray for the sick, he would immediately know whether his supplications had been accepted. "This one will live and this one will die," he would announce - or at least indicate - at the conclusion of his prayers.
Fascinated by his declaration, those around him asked: "How do you know?" Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa shared the key to his perceptive powers: "If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, then I know it has been well received and the ailing person will recover. But if not, then I know that my prayer has been torn up by the heavenly court and not accepted."
The Talmud illustrates the power of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's prayer with two tales, the first account providing the background for the aforementioned exchange (B. Berachot 34b).
Rabban Gamliel's son fell ill and he sent two scholars to request that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa should pray on behalf of the ailing son. As soon as Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa saw these two emissaries approach, he went up the attic and begged divine mercy for the sick child. Having finished his prayers he descended to the messengers and curtly told them to return to their master for the fever had left the child.
Skeptically, the two scholars asked: "Do you claim to be a prophet?" "I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet," replied Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, "rather, I have a tradition that if my prayer is fluent in my mouth, then I know it has been favorably received. And if not, then I know that my prayer has been rejected."
The two visitors made a note of the exact time and returned to Rabban Gamliel. Upon their arrival they reported the entire episode to their teacher and Rabban Gamliel exclaimed: "You have neither detracted nor added to the exact time of his recovery for it happened just so - at that very moment the fever left him and he asked us for some water to drink!"
Building on the first story, the second tale compares Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's force in prayer to the powers of the famed Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa went to study Torah from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the latter's son fell ill and the master turned to his disciple with an impassioned plea: "Hanina, my son, request divine mercy for him that he may live." Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa promptly laid his head between his knees, offered a heartfelt prayer as his master requested and the boy was saved.
Seeing this potent prayer, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai exclaimed: "Had Ben Zakkai stuck his head between his knees for an entire day, the heavenly court would pay no heed to him!" Hearing this admission, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's wife turned to her husband: "Is Hanina greater than you?" Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai placated his wife with a cryptic reply: "No, but he is like a servant before the king, while I am like a minister before the king."
What is the meaning of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's mysterious analogy? According to one approach, a servant benefits from regular, unimpeded access to the king and is therefore on intimate terms with the ruler. Despite his lowly station, the servant can approach the king at will. The minister, however, appears before the king only for important business. Thus the minister's relationship is more structured and formal; he cannot makes requests of the king as he pleases (Rashi, 11th century, France).
Another approach suggests that people who view themselves as servants of the Almighty are rewarded quid pro quo whereby God subjugates the divine will before the servants' requests. In comparison, people who hold lofty positions of authority, wield power and do not acquiesce to every request they receive, are treated in kind by the Almighty. Thus the modest, servant-like Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was more worthy than Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to have his prayers answered immediately (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad).
A third approach proposes that the minister understands that the king's decrees are for the betterment of his subjects. Thus the minister accepts the king's will with no argument or objection. The servant, however, does not comprehend the complex decision-making process and therefore he prays fervently and unremittingly until his requests are granted (Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, 19th century).
Perhaps a further lesson can be drawn from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's cryptic explanation. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was the apex of the learning pyramid; thanks to his foresight Torah Judaism survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Second Temple. He successfully reconstituted the world of Torah study in Yavne and his legacy continues to impact our lives today. It is no wonder that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is lauded as a hero, for we place significant worth - perhaps even primary value - on Torah study.
Nevertheless, study is not the only field of Jewish achievement. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai's admission that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was more effective in the realm of prayer may be pointing to the different roles played by different people, each person making his unique contribution. Without value judgment, the palace needs ministers as well as workers; each plays a distinct, necessary and irreplaceable role.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai remained the teacher of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, yet the disciple was able to achieve something that the master could only dream of doing. In a humble fashion, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai recognized that his strengths lay in the realm of scholarship and communal leadership; to attain other objectives he needed to turn elsewhere.
The viability of a community may be measured by the relationship the community demonstrates toward the individual's unique role. Those entrusted with leadership positions are challenged to acknowledge the inimitable contribution of each and every constituent.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.