Rabbi Meir, the second century Talmudic scholar, had a serious problem. The thugs in the neighborhood were making his life miserable. Desperate for a way to escape their harassment, Rabbi Meir decided that drastic measures were called for. He decided to pray that the ruffians would die.
But Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruria, wasn’t pleased with this solution. Bruria quoted to her husband the verse in Tehillim:
“Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more.” (Psalm 104:35)
It doesn’t say “Let the sinners be uprooted,” Bruria pointed out. It says “Let the sins be uprooted.” You shouldn’t pray that these thugs will die; you should pray that they should repent! And then, automatically, “the wicked will be no more.”
Rabbi Meir followed his wife’s advice. Sure enough, the neighborhood hooligans changed their ways, due to the scholar’s prayers.
Why didn’t Rabbi Meir think of his wife’s sensible solution himself?
Rabbi Meir was keenly aware that people have free will to choose between good and evil. Otherwise, how can we be held accountable for our actions? An essential aspect of the universe is humanity’s freedom to act.
If so, thought Rabbi Meir, what use is it to pray that these gangsters should repent? After all, it is a basic principle of the world that God does not deny or limit free choice. And these fellows have already chosen their path — one of violence and hatred. So what good could such a prayer accomplish?
Bruria, however, had greater insight into the souls of their unruly neighbors. There is no wicked person who would not prefer to follow the path of righteousness. The wicked are just misled and compelled by their evil inclinations. No one is absolutely corrupt, to the extent that he cannot be influenced to improve his ways.
Bruria understood the greatness of the human spirit, which God created upright and good. We cannot alter the basic nature of the soul. Given this kernel of good planted in the soul — even in the most hardened criminals — it is logical to pray for Divine assistance that these people should succeed in breaking the shackles of their evil inclination. Such a prayer is like praying for the sick, who are unable to heal themselves, despite their great desire to be healthy.
Perhaps this is why the verse Bruria quoted ends with the exclamation, “Let my soul bless God, hallelujah!” The soul thanks God for its portion: for being created with Divine wisdom and integrity, so that it cannot be totally corrupted and destroyed. Only the sins may be uprooted, and the wicked gone. But the soul, created by Divine light, will live forever.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 48 on Berachot 10)