Question: Is one able to annul harsh edicts decreed upon himself with the power of his prayers?
Answer: The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 1, Mishnah 7) states: “Nittai of Arbel said: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not give up during tribulations.”
The Rambam explains that this Mishnah means to teach us that even when one is in the midst of trials and tribulations, one should not give up praying to Hashem on his own behalf, for Hashem’s mercy is boundless as the verse states, “Indeed, Hashem’s hand is not too short to save and Hashem’s salvation comes at the blink of an eye.”
In Melachim II (Chapter 20), the verse states regarding Chizkiyahu, King of Yehuda, who was an extremely righteous king who disseminated Torah among the Jewish nation in extraordinary ways: “In those days, Chizkiyahu became deathly ill; Yeshayahu son of Amotz came to him and said, ‘So says Hashem: Prepare your household, for you shall die and you shall not live!’”
Yeshayahu the prophet was informing King Chizkiyahu that a death sentence was already decreed upon him from Above. The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (10a) explains that what Yeshayahu meant to tell him was, “For you shall die,” referring to death in this world, “And you shall not live,” referring to death in the World to Come. This means that Yeshayahu was telling him that not only was mortal death decreed upon him because of his actions, but he would be eternally punished in the World to Come as a result of his deeds.
King Chizkiyahu asked him, “Why was it decreed that I be punished to such an extent?” Yeshayahu replied, “Because you have not brought children to the world.” This is because Chizkiyahu had not gotten married, for he did not wish to bear children since he saw a divine vision that he would bear wicked children. Yeshayahu scolded him, “Why are you involving yourself in what Hashem has concealed from you? Do what you were commanded to do!”
Chizkiyahu answered, “If so, allow me to marry your daughter so that our joint merits may enable us to bear righteous children.” Yeshayahu the prophet told him, “The decree has already been sealed,” meaning that anything you do will be futile at this point.
King Chizkiyahu replied, “Son of Amotz, finish your prophecy and leave! I have a tradition handed down from my ancestors that even if one has a sharp sword laying on his throat, he should not hold back from requesting Hashem’s mercy!”
The verse continues: “He turned his face towards the wall and he prayed to Hashem saying: ‘Please Hashem! Remember how I have walked before You truthfully and whole-heartedly and how I have done good in Your eyes!’ Chizkiyahu wept a great weeping.”
Immediately afterwards, Hashem reappeared to Yeshayahu the prophet and told him: “Return to Chizkiyahu, officer of my nation, and tell him: ‘So says Hashem, G-d of your father David: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I shall heal you! On the third day ascend to the House of Hashem and I shall add fifteen years to your life.’”
Hagaon Harav Shmuel Yaffe explains (in his commentary Yeffe Mar’eh on Chapter 9 of Masechet Berachot in the Talmud Yerushalmi) that when Chizkiyahu said that he has a tradition “from his ancestors,” this refers to King Yehoshafat about whom the verse states (Melachim I, Chapter 22), “And Yehoshafat cried out and Hashem helped him.” When Yehoshafat waged war against Aram, the enemy’s cavalry had caught him and had already place a sword at his throat (see Yerushalmi ibid.) at which point he cried out to Hashem and Hashem indeed saved him.
We can learn from here how much we must strengthen ourselves in prayer, for the power of prayer is extremely great and Hashem who hears all prayers shall not return one’s prayer empty-handed.