Should we be protected? Sukkot 5773 Berakhot 56 and 57

As a trainee psychotherapist, the following was always going to make me chuckle:

Bar Haddaya was an interpreter of dreams. For one who gave him a fee, he would interpret the dream favourably.  And for one who did not give him a fee, he would interpret the dream unfavourably.

Is this a winning business model, a quick fix for psychoanalysts struggling to make ends meet?

Of course we all blush at the suggestion –  “We would never, we should never, we mustn’t even entertain such an idea…” – but I wonder if the matter isn’t actually a little more subtle than it seems, if maybe we don’t actually get ourselves into something of a muddle over it.

To put it bluntly, what is the role of the therapist?

On one reading, our role is perhaps to comfort, to console, to understand and to empathise.  And there is certainly some truth in this approach, there is definitely an aspect of care and concern to the profession.

That said, this is not the whole picture.  Sometimes, and this is true of all relationships, being understanding and empathetic can actually harm the person we are engaged with, it can re-enforce their sense of being a victim, it can discourage them from thinking seriously about the changes they could and should make in their lives.  If one always assures a troubled or distressed person that they are in the right, one might actually be helping them to miss an opportunity.

Many – though of course not all – forms of frustration have their source in the way a person approaches life, in the way they conduct their relationships, in the difficulty they have in genuinely connecting and relating to the other.  This is hard, sometimes we think we’re relating to the other, but we’re actually relating to the imagined version of the other that lives inside our head.  In Kleinian terms, we are relating to a ‘phantasy’ version of the other, or an ‘introjected’ other.

Frustration and anger can arise because the other is not behaving in the way we expect, they are radically deviating from our imagined sense of who they are.  And we are somehow not able to cope with that, their reality outside of us is unbearable, it unsettles and confuses us.

At this sort of juncture, it can be extremely helpful to tactfully and delicately try to get a person to see what is happening, to see what it is that is really distressing them.

It can be harmful and counterproductive to assure them that their behaviour has actually been impeccable, that they are right to be outraged.  The fury must be held, it is a valuable therapeutic commodity, and it must be unpacked and explored.

Holding onto the fury, to the rage and hurt a human being sitting opposite us is experiencing, is an extremely difficult task.  It requires one to be extremely rooted and solid, involved and attentive but not overly swayed or moved by the emotion.  And it requires insight and tact to be able to work it back into the conversation, to turn it into an object of study, to bring out what is revelatory in it.

It is much easier to move in for the comforting gesture, to try to rescue a person, to make all that horrible stuff just go away, to be the fixer.

Easier, but ultimately less productive.

Neville Symington, in his excellent book on narcissism, puts it like this:

My experience tells me that it is necessary for the analyst to be unrelenting in stripping away the false consolations with which a narcissistic person is surrounded, while holding them firmly, as it were, with care and concern.  (Narcissism: A New Theory  p.93)

It takes tremendous experience and skill to carry off this strange conjunction of gestures, to be  relentlessly stripping away whilst simultaneously holding with care and concern.  And yet, when we can manage it, we might be doing a person more good than we can possibly imagine.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something of this dialectical complexity in the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we are stripped of our defences, we are made raw through the purity of the honest encounter with our weaknesses.

On Sukkot we are held in a protective environment, in a space which takes away our comforts and consolations whilst simultaneously offering us shade, shelter and a modicum of warmth.  It is not the ease and luxury of our sturdy homes; we are rattled, shaken, provoked by what has been stripped away.

At this point, in this difficult and jarring environment, we are instructed to turn our eyes towards heaven, to peer at the stars, to be open to the majesty of external reality, to be confronted  by the other.  We are instructed to find new resolve, to creatively re-engage with our relationships and to try to overcome the ways in which we are numbed to the world around us.

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot should pierce us, it should enable us, to quote again from Symington:

To crash through this inner fortress, and bring the patient out of this turning inward and into relation with objects [people, ideas] in the outer world.

Sukkot is not easy, it does not always feel like the party it was once intended to be.  In Britain especially it can be harsh, a somewhat ascetic exercise.  And it flows from Yom Kippur in ways that were probably not intended.  And yet, it can be an extremely valuable opportunity, it can teach us something significant about the dangers of excessive comfort;  it can shake us into continued reflection on our fragility and our mortality.  It takes us outside: outside of what is homely, outside of our comfort zone.

Bar Haddaya met a gruesome and horrible end.  There is grave danger in attempting to offer false comfort, and also in acting harshly for the wrong reasons.  Harsh yet concerned, this is the challenge, both in our relations with others and also in our relations with ourselves.

May it be a chag which pierces us in all the right ways, and may the joy we attain be raw and pure in its intensity.

p.s.  This blog is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Yoni Jesner, who was killed ten years ago today in a terrorist attack in Israel.  May his memory continue to be an inspiration to all of us.

Prayer – what are we hoping for? Berakhot 30 and 31

We continue today with the idea that prayer requires a certain level of concentration, that it’s about aiming for a certain emotional note.

We have a concrete example of how seriously this was taken:

R. Eleazar said: A man should always take stock of himself: if he can focus his attention and concentrate he should say the Tefillah, but if not he should not say it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone in shul get up to say the Amida then sit back down again, realising that he’s just not up to it.  What a generation we are!  What tremendous powers of focus and concentration we have been granted!

Interestingly, this dictum is actually brought as proof that someone could not possibly have prayed without concentration.  They would have known about this saying and simply not prayed.  So it seems that it was taken quite seriously, people really lived by it.

In another example Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi rules that it is preferable  to continue riding on one’s donkey and pray rather than to get off and pray quickly.  Knowing human nature, he figures that if one gets off to pray in the middle of one’s journey, one’s commute, that a person will just rush through it whilst worrying about the time.  There will be nothing resembling reflection or contemplation;  one’s connection to one’s spiritual anchor will in no way be strengthened.

In such a case, it seems, we might just be best to utter the following very short prayer:

The needs of Thy people Israel are many and their da’at – understanding, awareness –  is small.  May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to give to each one his sustenance and to each body what it lacks. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who listens to prayer.

This truly is a micro-prayer, to be said when time is virtually non-existent.  No build up, no warm down, just straight to the point.

And yet, it’s remarkably perceptive, it gets to the core of things very directly.

At one level, it simply says that we don’t have time to stop to articulate our needs, so please, God, you know what they are, you figure them out, and take care of them.

But on another level it’s saying more than this, it’s saying that we don’t ever really know what our needs are, that fundamentally we are out of touch with the unconscious yearnings and cravings which genuinely drive us.  We don’t really have the faintest inkling of what we lack, of what’s behind the emptiness in our soul.

Even when we do pray, we might conjecture, we are trying to grapple with this, trying to figure it out.  As we said yesterday, we are trying to become more conscious in prayer, we are trying to see ourselves more clearly, to gain a better sense of the need that defines us.

So there is a very strong tradition of finding the right mood, of prayer not being a rote performance.  This is mythologised further as we start the next chapter:

One may only stand and begin to pray from an approach of gravity and submission.  There is a tradition that the early generations of pious men would wait one hour, in order to reach the solemn frame of mind appropriate for prayer, and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven. Standing in prayer is standing before God and, as such, even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him; and even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt his prayer.

An hour of preparation for prayer!  That would truly be remarkable, and clearly, as even the Mishna seems to recognise, a little unrealistic.  But maybe once in a while, once a month, once a year, we might meditate for an hour before prayer?  Where oh where would that take us, what fresh psychic landscapes might open for us on that journey?

As part of a Shabbat service I was involved in a while ago we tried to meditate before prayer.  It was definitely a help, it made one much more ready to engage with the possibilities that prayer presents.

The Talmud seeks to understand the source of this approach, from where do we learn that the point of prayer is to emotionally challenge us, to help us pierce the crust that forms around our personal holy of holies?

The sources are surprisingly human.  We are not told to meditate on the wonders of creation, nor on the ways that the Divine might be manifest in the unfolding of history, in the gradual raising of humanity’s consciousness.

The first source is the prayer of Hannah, which turns out to be an archetypal prayer on many levels.

Hannah had been unable to have children, and she came to the temple at Shilo to pray:

And she felt anguish in her soul, and she prayed to the Lord and she wept and wept. (I Samuel 1:10)

This must have been an emotionally intense prayer.  To even suggest that we connect with such pain is somewhat audacious; how could we possibly feel in that manner with such regularity?

The Talmud accepts this, it shies away from prescribing this level of feeling, but it doesn’t remove the benchmark altogether.

Next up we turn to King David, there are various verses which suggest that be brought a lot of awe and reverence to his prayer.

But we soon hone in one particular verse, and what’s notable about it is the emotional complexity it seems to both represent and mandate:

Serve the Lord in awe and rejoice with trembling.  (Ps. 2:11)

Awe mixed with joy, combined with or resulting in a ‘trembling’, suggesting a very physical response to the stimulus.

I’m a bit stumped here, I’m not quite sure quite what this means, how we might think about it.

It sounds like a description of some kind of trance, of a person swept away from their everyday concerns and plunging deep into a sea of pure and powerful emotion.  It does sound like something it might take an hour to attain, it’s not the kind of experience we can encounter every day.

Nonetheless, the demand still stands.  Whether we aim for the rawness of Hannah or the rapture of David, the idea is that we do not engage with prayer without attempting to adjust and recalibrate our emotional state.

To pray – le’hitpalel  – can be translated more literally as ‘to assess oneself’.  This is the requirement: ‘have a good look at yourself, try to rediscover something of your seriousness for life in the process’.

One might ask what all of this emotionality has to do with God – isn’t He supposed to be timeless and unmovable, why does he need us to feel all of this?

On a simple level, He doesn’t need it, we do.

On another level, using a more mature concept of God, to have a profound sense of Divine presence requires being extremely well attuned to one’s emotional world.

The more we observe our emotions, the more clearly we see that they are largely happening outwith our control, and the more humbled we are by them.  And that humility, the sense of the self’s smallness in the face of these forces, the sense of their overwhelming reality in the face of our limited and barely real consciousness, that is the starting point for a mode of feeling that might be called ‘religious’.

I contend that in our more elevated moments we are not just high, we are not just experiencing a flood of serotonin. Rather, phenomenologically speaking, we are being lifted, we are connecting with something, we are granted a glimpse, a taste of something elusive, of something utterly beyond our control, of something with its own insouciant reality.  We do not just feel, we encounter;  we no longer contain our emotions, but they expand and transport us.

It is in this sense that the Divine is real, that it is not just a figment of the imagination, an idealised construct brought into being through the power of our desire.  And it is in the build up to prayer, and in the experiences we seek there that we try to remember this.

There is another quote from the Psalms: Prepare their hearts and Your ear will listen (10:17).

I take from this the realisation that the state of our hearts is somewhat beyond us, and that we must hope for some kind of assistance or fortune in even finding the right mood to pray.

Make no mistake:  to pray is to dig deep, it is to re-order the manner in which we understand our realities.  We might call it an ontological wake up call.

We will never attain these profound experiences all the time.  Nonetheless, even at our numbest, may we always remember that it was once our target. 

I say a little prayer for you… Berakhot 28b and 29

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.