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. 

Not by bread alone… Berakhot 14

One of the themes we’ve been talking about lately is the concept of obligation.  On page 11 I was suggesting that in Hillel’s worldview the spirit of the law is paramount, and that viewing it solely as a demanding or constraining set of obligations was to miss the point.  In brief, God is not keeping score.

This position is challenged a little by the mishna we are discussing today:

R. Joshua b. Korhah said: why was the section of ‘Shema’ placed before that of ‘and it shall come to pass’? So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven  and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.

So, as opposed to the three readings of the Shema we saw yesterday, we are presented with another one, and this time the theme of obligation seems to be very much central.  What do we do with this?

Maybe I’m just the wrong sort of ox, but the idea of assuming a yoke doesn’t come very naturally to me.  And I don’t think I’m alone, I think the modern consciousness is not very well attuned to such an image, it feels alien to our liberal, democratic and fundamentally autonomous worldview.

How then are we to understand it?

First of all, reading the MIshna carefully, we can see that there is actually already a rejection of a certain worldview.  Rabbi Joshua is telling us that we mustn’t just accept the yoke of mitzvot without having first spent some serious time contemplating the yoke of heaven.  This is actually quite in tune with Hillel’s worldview – do not embrace the law out of a spirit of obligation, resignation, defeat.  The law is holy, it is not here to satisfy your craving for consolation, to fulfil a masochistic desire or to meet a need to obsess.

So, before you embrace the Law, understand that in doing so you are connecting with something Heavenly, with something Divine, with something powerfully Other.

Building on what we said yesterday about the Divine, I think we can see that the ‘yoke of heaven’ can actually be quite a profound thing.  It is perhaps, quite literally, uplifting.

When we meditate on everything that is fine, true and good in the world, when we manage to hear – shema -  the better angels of our nature, we may well be momentarily moved.  We may have a brief epiphany.  But, more often than not, we quickly forget about it, and get on with life much as we did before.

In a sense, we view these moments of inspiration as somewhat illusory, the product of a febrile imagination, they’re somehow not very real.

No doubt, some forms of psychoanalysis, including some of Freud himself, have helped propagate this worldview.  And it’s also supported by the other strongly materialist worldviews so prevalent nowadays, including a certain interpretation of neuroscience, a reductionist approach to  philosophy, a strand of evolutionary biology and a resistant breed of Marx-esque economic determinism.

With all of this in the intellectual air, it really is tough to take goodness or truth seriously as ‘real things’.  Following that, it becomes very hard to commit to them as principles by which to live one’s life.

To swear allegiance to these ethereal ideals, that requires both hard intellectual work and a great deal of moral fabric.  We need to see that they are, in some quiet and subtle sense, very very real, and we must then make something of a leap of faith to live by them.

And perhaps we don’t even always manage to make that leap.  Perhaps we carry on like the stubborn ox, refusing to believe that these ideals are actually good for us, that these fleeting visions of what we might be, of what society might look like, are actually precious gifts of insight, flashes of illumination in an otherwise perplexing world.

We don’t embrace them, we do our best to ignore them, we flee, like Jonah, to another part of the world, one where we think we’re safe from their calling.

We try, but eventually, perhaps, we run out of steam.  Eventually we start to get it, we start to see that this stuff really does matter, that man does not live by bread alone, that the stuff of the spirit is what ultimately makes the difference.  For ourselves and for society, living without ideals only leads to alienation and disintegration; without the wholeness of a vision the possibility of meaning evaporates.

Eventually we might start to accept this as a reality.  And I think that the idea of not studying the mystical tradition until we are 40 recognises how difficult this is, it acknowledges quite how much patience and experience it requires.

But even then, when we feel almost forced into responding to the call of our spirit, we still can’t quite do it, we still think we can get away with thoughtless, selfish living, focussing on our straightforward material needs and ignoring our subtler, higher ones.  We treat spiritual life as something of a luxury, and not one that we always deem worthy of our time or energy.

This then is the yoke of heaven, to accept the reality of these demands, of our true nature, and to focus our energy on living by them.  And, as the tradition recognises, this is not something we do once, but something we do twice daily, for we are sure to be constantly forgetting it.

And once we have embarked on this mission, once we see the yoke as something which elevates us, which makes us more than human, ubermenschen, and certainly not like the animals of the field, only then can we understand the mitzvot.  Only then can we approach them with the care and spirit they require, only then can we know the right way to weave them into our lives.

We see this idea expressed again later on our daf, in quite a different way.  We are told not to engage with our personal needs before praying in the morning, lest we miss out on the verse:

Righteousness shall go before him, and shall make for his feet a path. (Ps. 85.14)

When we pray, when we engage with the Divine, when we commit to it, we come away with a renewed burst of righteousness, our moral energies are bolstered, our spirits are lifted.

A path is suddenly laid out before us, and our feet find it ever so slightly easier to walk it.

What is God wearing? Berakhot 10

There is a interesting discussion today about the different occasions on which David used the expression ‘Barkhi Nafshi’ – ‘May my soul be blessed’.

One of those occasions was when he was being breastfed – or more precisely, being breastfed and looking at his mother’s breast.  Rabbi Abbahu explains:

God placed her breasts near her heart, the place that is the source of understanding.

This seems to support what we saw on Berakhot 3: the image of the breastfeeding child really is central, it is the key moment in which love, nourishment and wisdom come together to give the child her indispensable foundations.

Another occasion on which David used the phrase was when he contemplated death.  On that occasion he said the following:

My soul, bless the Divine.  My Lord, God, You are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty. (Ps. 104.1)

This idea of God being clothed is fascinating, we make reference to a similar idea every Friday night:

God has reigned, He has donned grandeur; He is dressed in might and has strengthened Himself. (Ps. 93.1)

In what sense does God get dressed?

At a first glance, it’s a very difficult image.  The second image in particular seems to see God as King of flesh and blood, who clothes himself for battle in whatever is necessary.  Grandeur and strength are at hand, those are the kinds of things a King would use to get ready for battle.

So at this level the image remains totally anthropomorphic, it’s a very difficult one for us to relate to – it’s not of our time, it’s from another world.

And yet, as the mystical traditions have emphasised, the idea of God being clothed is actually a philosophically profound one, and is definitely worth meditating upon.

In those traditions, we must first appreciate the idea that God exists in the beyond, that his essence and being are fundamentally outwith human perception and, perhaps, comprehension.

This is all very well, but the problem then becomes how we know anything about God, for surely we need some exposure to get us started on the religious path.  The mystical approach is deeply rooted in our experience of the divine, not solely in abstract speculation, so we need to know how we get that experience.

For the mystics, the answer comes in the idea of clothing.  God makes himself manifest in the world through putting on worldly characteristics, through making himself appear through Majesty, Glory, Beauty, Truth and Strength.  These attributes are not His essence, but He is palpably present through their existence.

It’s a bit like one of those films where an invisible man slinks around unnoticed.  In order to make himself known he puts on a raincoat, picks up an umbrella or starts juggling oranges.  At that point the other characters can see him, he becomes known.

So, on the first level of this mystical idea, God is working in this way.  He is radically other, yet in order to make himself known, he dresses up in worldly vestments, in the clothing of our reality.  Of course, he chooses noble and lofty aspects of that reality, but there is still a sense in which it’s all a little arbitrary, there is a huge gap between his essence and that which is manifested.

I believe, however, that the idea can actually be pushed even further, and made even more meaningful for us.

We start with the same question – how do we know about or experience God?

Two classic answers, ones we sometimes feel we ought to give, are that we believe He was once much more present in human life (i.e. through open miracles and revelation) or that we stand in a tradition which asserts such events, and we rely on that legacy even if we struggle to actually believe it ourselves.

Both of these are pretty weak responses, I feel, and religious life is never going to get very far based on such fragile foundations.

I side with the mystics, God must be real to us, the Divine must be something which is somehow perceptible, somehow powerfully present in our lives.

And in this vein, I get the idea of clothing, of manifestation.

God is manifest in Beauty, Truth and Glory, in Justice, Compassion and Kindness.  But he is not manifest in them arbitrarily, in the way that I’m wearing a blue t-shirt today rather than a white one.  We encounter the Divine when we encounter these aspects of reality, we are encountering a part of Its Essence, albeit not the totality of It.

God is not something we ‘believe’ in, rather we are constantly experiencing and learning about the Divine.  We make it our life’s business to learn and experience as much of the greatness of life as possible, and in every such encounter we are actually expanding our awareness of what is Divine.

We cannot learn about Truth without being exposed to lots of interesting truths, nor can we learn about Beauty without being arrested and moved by its presence.

In the same way, we cannot learn much about the Divine as children, and so we are given simplified stories about its meaning.

As adults we have the opportunity to expand our horizons and seek out all that is true and noble about the world.  And wherever we find that greatness, wherever something majestic and sublime whispers to us, we can be sure that we have encountered an aspect of the Divine.

We may at points struggle to see the connection between this idea of the Divine and the one presented by organised religion.  And sometimes there does seem to be some conflict between the two, religion can seem to bring out what is base and mean in man, rather than Heschel’s ‘Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity’.  I used to feel that ‘Moral Bankruptcy and Spiritual Destitution’ would be a more accurate analysis of the religious world we sometimes actually encounter.

And yet, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is all wrong.  When we return to the sources, when we read the poetry of the Psalms, when we get the awe inspiring ambition and vision which is at the core of it, we see that religion should be about what is best in us.  If there is a conflict then that needs addressing, but we must not give in to the voices which insist that the traditions of religion demand that we quell our natural sense of the great Beauty, Truth and Kindness that bring light to the world.

David meditated upon this as he was nearing death, at the end of a rich and dramatic life he could look back and see all the different ways in which Life had challenged, defeated and inspired him.  And through all of these he could see a unity, something greater, and at that moment he saw the workings of God.  He saw that the Divine is always lurking, waiting to be noticed, and that it is one of the tragedies of life that we sometimes just can’t make the effort to see and admire It.