The Theatre of Prayer Berakhot 34

A major theme of the daf recently has been the idea that prayer, particularly the recitation of the Amida, should be approached as if we were standing in front of a King.  A story from yesterday makes this clear:  An eminent politician encountered a pious man deep in prayer, and the pious man refused to respond to him.  When he was finished, the politician asked him to justify his actions, for surely he was putting himself in danger, given the politician’s power and authority.  The pious man responded thus:

He said to him: Had you been standing before a flesh and blood king and your friend came and greeted you, would you return his greeting?

The officer said to him: No.

The pious man continued: And if you would greet him, what would they do to you?

The officer said to him: They would cut off my head with a sword.

The pious man said to him: Isn’t this matterthen  an a fortiori inference?

You who were standing before a king of flesh and blood, of whom your fear is limited because today he is here but tomorrow he is in the grave, would have reacted in that way;  I, who was standing and praying before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who lives and endures for all eternity, all the more so that I could not pause to respond to someone’s greeting.

This is a classic little story, the rhetorical exchange has something of a Socratic quality to it, the wise man patiently leading the layman towards a meaningful insight.

And in this vein, the method that he uses, the analogy or parable, is central to the point he is making.  He’s trying to get the politician to imagine what it is like to be engaged in prayer, and he’s doing so by reference to a flesh and blood experience that he can relate to.

He doesn’t just say: ‘You fool, I am talking to the King of Kings, do not bother me with your trifles!’.  He acknowledges that it is not at all obvious what is happening, and he tries to show the politician something of his worldview, something of what it means to be engaged in prayer.

And the parable, the ‘as if’, isn’t just for the politician’s benefit, it’s for our benefit too.  We have a tendency to switch off when we hear talk like this, of us standing before the King of Kings, in the presence of greatness.  We feel it’s somehow crude and anachronistic, out of tune with our concept of the Divine.  We feel that they were taking it literally, but that we simply cannot do that.

But it is not so.  I think this story suggests that they too were using the analogy as pedagogical tool, as an attempt to encourage us to imagine that we are in a certain set of circumstances.  They are asking us to act, to engage in a theatre production, and the hope is that through doing that, we might create an environment or mood wherein something profound can happen.

Let us step back.  Let us imagine that we are encountering the idea of the Divine for the very first time, we are learning to think along the lines that there is a reality to our values, that there are real things happening in the depths to which we have never paid attention.

We are then told that we must pray to this Divine, that we must engage with it and meditate upon it.

Where would we begin?  How would we find the right frame of mind, the feelings, the headspace?

It would be a challenge.  It would be like an actor being thrust into the role of Hamlet, given the vaguest of backgrounds and then being told to deliver a meaningful ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

It can’t happen.  The actor connects with the mood of the moment through imagining himself in similar circumstances, through finding a personal reality in the drama.  This takes time, thought, intense research.  And when he does so successfully, he is actually making the words ring deeply true; we are no longer in the realm of fiction, we are rather watching a man baring his soul.  The text and the staging are a device, carefully constructed to evoke something genuine in the actor and to leave the audience with a real and lasting experience.

I believe that this is exactly what is happening with prayer.  The pious man is our Shakespeare, he has written the words and he is now giving us our stage directions.  ‘Don’t do it that way, do it this way, imagine you are standing in front of a powerful King, a President, someone you are in awe of and who makes you tremble with nervousness.  Think starstruck, think dry-mouthed, raised pulse and sweating.  Now you may speak the words, now you may being to act.’

We are being taught how to act, and only once we sense that we must act, that we must dig deep to create something, only then can we start to pray, can we start to mouth words in front of the Divine.

‘Imagine the honesty you would experience at that moment, imagine how all your masks and defences would drop, how you would stand feeling naked and exposed, confronted by the reflection of everything that is weak and flawed in your personality.’

This is what we are aiming for, the construction of a stage upon which we might encounter the reality of our lives, the truth that runs through it, however carefully hidden it might be.  In confronting greatness something is reflected back to us, and however much we might prefer to not see it, we must bravely stare at it and accept it.

We’ve done a lot of work in understanding the Divine, in moving beyond childish ideas of God.  But once we’ve done that work, we have a whole new challenge, we must learn how to experience and live with that Divine, how to make its presence a real and powerful force in our lives.

And for that, we must step out of the Theology faculty and walk across the campus to the Drama faculty.

The stage directions continue today:

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of the Tanna bar Kappara: An ordinary person, conducts himself as we said; he bows at the beginning and the end of the blessings of Patriarchs and thanksgiving and is admonished if he seeks to bow at the beginning and end of the other blessings.

It is appropriate, though, for a High Priest to bow at the end of each and every blessing; and for a king to bow at the beginning of each and every blessing and at the end of each and every blessing.

[Another opinion]  The king, once he has bowed at the beginning of the first blessing, does not rise until he concludes the entire prayer, as it is stated: “And it was that when Solomon finished praying all of his prayer to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling upon his knees with his hands spread forth toward the heavens” (1 Kings 8:54).

Here we are not just using the imagination, we are using the body too.  The body is more primitive than the imagination, our use of it affects us in ways that don’t altogether make sense.  It creates its own reality, it generates its own sense of occasion.

And what we see in these instructions is that the more eminent a person, the more they must bow and humble themselves, the harder they must work to experience the rawness and defencelessness, to be moved by something Majestic.

And it’s no co-incidence that we use Solomon, that wisest of men, as our example.  Wisdom is no substitute for experience, if anything it can get in the way of feeling something genuine and human.  He of all people needed to completely prostrate himself to achieve the experience of being humbled before Truth, of being confronted by everything he had failed to realise in his life.

The discussion of bowing practices continues, and it’s fascinating to observe the varieties of habit, the sense in which everyone was doing something different.  It’s as if they had reached the point where they were hearing the music, wherein they were able to merge their own spontaneity with the framework they were inhabiting.

And this idea that we might succeed in making something real happen, that we sometimes know that our prayer has hit the right note, that we have connected with something, this is how I understand the following idea:

Once the son of R. Gamaliel fell ill. He sent two scholars to R. Hanina b. Dosa to ask him to pray for him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber and prayed for him.

When he came down he said to them: Go, the fever has left him; They said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied: I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learnt this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that it is accepted: but if not, I know that it is rejected.

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa knew that his prayer had been accepted or rejected based on the experience he had whilst saying it.  If he attained fluency, if he connected with something real in himself, then it was accepted.  If not, if he remained in the world of empty ritual and lifeless artifice, then he could be sure that it was rejected.

I believe that we know when we have prayed, and we know when we have just uttered words, when nothing has happened.

“Being accepted”, “being heard”, these are experiences, phenomenological descriptions of feelings.  I do not believe that they are supernatural claims, claims to do with the realm of miracles or disrupting nature.

It is the wisdom of our tradition to understand how hard prayer is, and yet how supremely important the role it may play in our lives.  When we read the rules around it as stage directions, as experiential aids, then I think we are better able to accept them with gratitude, to acknowledge that we are part of a long chain of people who have forever been struggling to pray.

Let us pray well, and let us be aware enough to detect whether our prayers have been accepted or not.

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.