Reader: Could you clarify the article in the JewishTimes "Reciting Tehillim for the Ill"; specifically what is the difference between Tehillim and prayer? Are they not synonymous?
Also are you identifying a specific, incorrect motivation for reciting Tehillim as one who reads the words without proper intent or proper understanding? Is this the same as someone who uses the book of Psalms not as a recourse to God as the source of all but like a "genie" who will grant my wishes?
Lastly, is it incorrect to speak out to God as one would a friend? Meaning, with no structure; just speaking aloud your thoughts and concerns and supplications?
Rabbi: Tehillim, or Psalms, are the divinely-inspired writings of King David. This work must not be viewed as more effective than say Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, in attaining a response fro God for our needs. Neither book is the halachik formula to be used to present our requests. The Rabbis instituted Prayer for this objective. And yes, many do assume Tehillim recital will magically grant wishes.
Regarding your last question, since Prayer was instituted, it would be incorrect to resort to a personal, unformulated dialogue with God. We must follow Jewish law.
Reader: In your article about saying Tehillim I am unclear as to whether it is okay to say Tehillim when someone is sick. Is it better to learn Torah? What is the source for saying Tehillim for the sick?
Rabbi: The correct response is Tefilah, Prayer. But one can say Tehillim, so as to review the correct response, and then do Tefilah afterwards.
Reader: So all the Tehillim that anyone says on behalf of sick people is totally useless? If so, then why do all contemporary Rabbanim encourage this practice?
Rabbi: There is no source to say Tehillim for one who is sick. Rambam permits it only when one is healthy. The Torah sources (see the article) clearly prohibit the recital of any Torah verse(s) for the sake of healing. This must be clear to you. But, perhaps it is not as you suggest, that Rabbis endorse Tehillim alone, without a subsequent "Mishiberach". When the latter is recited, it is upon that Tefilah that we rely for healing, and not the verses...which cannot heal.
Nonetheless, when Torah sources conflict with Rabbis today, we follow the source.
Reader: Perhaps because all this occurred on behalf of the sick, i.e. that people recite Tehillim, the sick receive some of this merit which can ultimately cause them to heal. Similiar to why we say Kaddish. It's a kabbalistic concept. Is it not because praising Hashem on behalf of a deceased person causes an elevation for the dead soul, the neshama? I believe the same concept applies in this case.
Jewish tradition teaches when one's neshama takes leave of its body and ascends to the Heavens, at that time, he or she is judged for his/her actions. From that time onward, that neshama cannot improve its standing in the Heavenly realm. However, according to our Chazal (sages), the neshama receives a "review" of its original judgment on its yahrtzeit, with the opportunity to elevate its status in Gan Eden. How could things change after one passes on, you may think? Because in reality, the books are rarely ever "closed" on one's life since the neshama almost invariably left a legacy during the time it spent in this world. Therefore, the secondary mitzvos they helped generate with their actions on this world still accrue after their death to bring merit to their neshama. For example, if someone donated siddurim (prayer books) to a shul during their lifetime, they get a mitzvah each time someone uses that siddur. The same concept would apply to one who helps start a shul, Jewish day school, or other chesed organization.
This concept most certainly applies to one who had children who lead meaningful lives, since they can bring merit to the neshama of the deceased for many years to come. The mitzvah is Kaddish is one way to accomplish this. The deceased person indirectly caused me to do a mitzvah and therefore receives some of the merit.
Rabbi: According to this view, it makes no difference if I sin, as long as others say kaddish, my soul will be improved. Does this make sense to you? I don't see any source that endorses this view of "elevation of dead souls".
Fast-forward, the reader in fact was not quoting Midrash. It eventually became clear that there is no source for the theory that dead souls can be elevated by the living. In fact, Rashi cites the Rabbis who say that the living have no knowledge of the afterlife, and therefore no Prophet, person or Rabbi would ever claim he knows what happens to the souls of the dead. Isaiah 64:3 "no eye has seen it, [except] God alone". The Rabbis teach this to refer to Olam Haba, the afterlife, that "God alone" knows what it is. But no man knows what it is. Even the Prophets envisioned only those matters pertaining to the Messianic Era, but never did they behold any vision or insight concerning Olam Haba. Thus, it is ignorance and arrogance to claim that any man knows what happens there, or that the living can affect those souls.