Rabbi Eliezer warns us in the Mishna:
One who makes his prayers ‘keva’ – fixed, rigid, routine – loses the sense in which they are pleas, cries for mercy.
He is giving voice to a fundamental concern that any honest appraisal of prayer must accept – there is a tension between making prayer routine and maintaining the emotional core which gives it life.
We talked about this the other day, about the benefits of routine, but now we must adjust our focus and look at its costs.
The Gemara (I’m sorry, I just can’t keep saying Talmud all the time, it’s not quite natural! (Not sure exactly what I’m suppressing, but even less sure why I should suppress it…)), gives three insights into the meaning of ‘keva’, ‘fixed’.
R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him.
All the formulations are slightly strange here, R. Eliezer talks of ‘making’ one’s prayer fixed, and here we talk about the experience of it feeling like a burden. There seems to be a suggestion that we somehow choose to view it as a burden, that we allow it to become nothing more than a heavy debt which weighs us down.
Is it really possible to avoid this? Perhaps there is a hint in the next insight:
The Rabbis say: Whoever does not say it in the language of supplication.
If we assume that the text of prayer is reasonably fixed, then ‘the language’ being referred to here must be more of an emotional language, the tone and mood in which we pray.
What I hear in these words is an injunction to make oneself humble before praying, to reconnect with the part of us that is vulnerable and needy. So much of our experience, perhaps especially nowadays, reinforces our sense of self and enhances feelings of omnipotence that we never quite grow out of.
We are so busy and distracted that we give no thought to the ways in which we are fragile and troubled. It’s not a co-incidence, part of the interest in being busy is precisely because it distracts us from ourselves, from the uncertainty and unease we encounter when we spend time alone, when we find ourselves looking inwards.
Even the study of Torah can distract us from this. This was a motif running through the story we read yesterday and something I myself have noticed whilst being engaged in this daf yomi project. Torah is inspiring and elevating, it lifts us and makes as attuned to something we might genuinely call Divine. But is also strengthens us, it satisfies us, it makes us less vulnerable. And in doing so it can make it harder to properly pray, to experience that sense of being a vulnerable creature who needs to reach out to something bigger and stronger, to something outside the self.
There is a genuine emotional conflict between study and prayer, it is not merely an ideological difference that surfaces from time to time.
We must find the language, the music, the feel of vulnerability. Otherwise our prayer lacks life, it loses its power.
And if we do find that vulnerability, if we remember our neediness, then perhaps we have achieved enough in prayer, perhaps this is the core of the whole exercise.
Does this make it less of a burden? It doesn’t make it easier, but hopefully it makes it less tedious, less meaningless, less dominated by a spirit of rigid obligation.
The third insight is also interesting:
Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.
Before we go further, you just have to love the candour and humour of the next person to comment on this:
R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused.
Something fresh. That’s a challenge, for sure, but again it is a suggestion, a word of advice. As well as trying to adopt a certain emotional posture before or whilst praying, we are encouraged to bring something new to it.
On one level this can be a challenge to the imagination: the language and imagery of prayer is extremely rich, and we are being encouraged to pause and consider it, to try to understand it differently, to relate to it in a new way.
On another level, this can be taken as a more psychological challenge, as an almost therapeutic injunction to allow something from our day to surface in our prayer, to use it as an opportunity for reflection, for contemplation. One of Freud’s most powerful insights was to emphasise the importance of free association, of encouraging the mind to just wander, to amble, to allow itself to be.
And it’s not just because things will be revealed, because we will gain deep insights from the stuff that comes out. No, it’s more fundamental than that: the mind needs to open up simply because it needs to be open, because that’s its natural state. We spend so much of our lives in society needing to close down our mind; so much of our upbringing is about discouraging us from certain thoughts and self-perceptions.
We are fundamentally anxious, and often we are so anxious about ourselves that we daren’t even explore certain thoughts or ideas, for fear of where a given trail may lead, for fear of what certain thoughts might mean.
So we are told: ‘Do not be afraid, use your prayer to go to new places, to try different things. Prayer is an encounter with Truth, if you are not prepared to grapple with difficult truths when you pray, then maybe you shouldn’t bother.’
In my experience, good prayer can have a very similar effect to good therapy. But in praise of prayer, one is obliged to point out that it is a lot cheaper and a lot more readily available.
So this is what the Talmud offers us, do not view your prayer as a burden, use it as an emotional and psychological opportunity to try out different things, to change the pace of your day.
Still, we have the nagging sense that this is not easy, that it is a big ask to do this three times a day. We saw yesterday that Rabbi Yehoshua felt that a twice daily obligation would be more appropriate, today we see that he goes even further:
Rabban Gamaliel says: every day a man should say the eighteen benedictions. R. Yehoshua says: an abbreviated eighteen.
Now, as a first observation, even Rabban Gamliel seems to suggest that we need say the full eighteen blessings only once a day. I’m not sure about the logistics of this, perhaps he had a different prayer format for Mincha and Ma’ariv. But he doesn’t seem to say that we should say the full Shemona Esrei thrice daily.
As we know from yesterday, Rabbi Yehoshua is the great defender of the working classes, of the busy and time restricted people. He advocates using the abridged version of the prayer, which makes the thirteen middle berachot into one short paragraph. This makes the whole exercise much more manageable.
Perhaps more importantly, I take him to be emphasising quality over quantity. ‘Do not pray so many words that you are unable to concentrate, to mean anything by them. Do not spend all your time on the text, rushing through words without experiencing anything resonant at all. Slow down and say a few words carefully, use them as a springboard to thought and feeling, this is the point of prayer.’
And, significantly, the Gemara engages in quite a detailed discussion of this prayer, as well as offering a variety of even shorter prayers that we might use. Unlike nowadays, I get the feeling that they really did use these prayers, that it was quite common for even the leading Rabbis to pray using these shorter formulae. And this is very heartening. It’s quite a challenge to spend over an hour a day praying. But the idea that we do it in three short bursts, each lasting perhaps a couple of minutes, that sounds a lot more feasible, something that we might and, realistically, could do.
So, in sum, let’s avoid making our prayer into a burden. Let’s keep it short and meaningful, let’s make it regular but fresh. I’m genuinely quite excited about this, I’ve often felt that meaningful prayer involves an unfeasible time commitment. I’m liberated by this Gemara, I have a renewed sense that maybe less really can be more.