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.

Born again Jews? Really? Berakhot 32

We open today with a great verse:

 “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

This is cited as one of the Divine gestures which saved Israel from being destroyed, from being lost to the annals of history.

This ties in very closely with what we were saying yesterday:  in some of our profoundest emotional moments, we have the sense that something deep and mysterious is happening to us, that it is not simply a random series of feelings, but that it is significant in ways we struggle to describe.

God here is the source of a ‘new heart’, a new emotional vista and space.  He is also the source of a ‘new spirit’, a renewed appreciation for life, a fresh vigour and sense of purpose about us.

And we do not mean that God is a being or agent who decides to act in this way, to grant us something.  We mean, rather, that these events have a deep reality, that they alert us to a dynamic in the structure of existence that we had not previously been aware of.  We have, very literally, a new sense of possibility, our ‘being-in-the-world’ looks very different.

Of course, we are not obliged to use theological language to describe these events.  But we do struggle to find the right language – it is very unsatisfying from a psychoanalytic or existential perspective to simply speak of them as random events, as lacking any structure or meaningful framework.  The idea that we one day feel reborn, that we have a new heart, it is simply not enough to say that ‘things happen’; we want to try to understand the whys and hows of that, so that the event has some sense and to give ourselves some theoretical orientation.

And, from the other direction, if we find ourselves enmeshed in this theological language, in a religious culture, then surely we want to find the most meaningful and profound ways of understanding the words and images, surely we want to push them to their limits and see what work they might do for us.

In a similar vein, we encounter the following verse, as another foundation of Judaism:

“And I will place My spirit within you and I will cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will observe My decrees and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27).

Again, something beyond us brings about significant internal change, our behaviour is radically altered by it.

These epiphanies, these sudden shifts or changes of heart, I think we tend to trivialise them much more than previous generations did.  Has our learning made us coarse?

And all of this also chimes with what we said about freedom, that our lack of real freedom might make us more receptive to external assistance.   (Just reading that phrase ‘external assistance’, it’s so clunky, one can see ‘Divine support’ would be the more poetic choice.  The fate of the philosopher, destined to shun poetry in the name of clarity…)

In this vein, we have a memorable parable for just how dangerous it is to rely on our will to suddenly show unprecedented and unfounded strength:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: This is comparable to a person who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him with oil, fed him and gave him drink, and hung a purse of money around his neck. Then, he brought his son to the entrance of a brothel. What could the son do to avoid sinning?

What, indeed, could he do?  The flesh is weak, and it’s all too easy to make it weaker.

Further exploring the link between satiety and corruption, we encounter the verse:

And your heart will expand, become raised, and you will forget God. (Deut. 8:14)

I read ‘heart’ here as ego, when the ego becomes excessively present, dominant, rich, at that point it is hard for a person to retain a sense of what lies beyond himself.  And from that point, one’s awareness of others and sensitivity to their needs tends to go downhill.

From a purely individualistic point of view too, as one becomes cocky and overconfident, one tends to lose sight of one’s real needs, to fall prey once more to that ever seductive sense of omnipotence.

Let us end with a classic piece of Talmud from the daf, which it would be wrong not to mention:

Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked, as it is said in lamentation of the Temple’s destruction: “Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8)  Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked as it is stated: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears” (Ps. 39:13).

We may be sceptical about the efficacy of prayer, but we harbour no reservations about the impact of our tears.  When we are truly moved by our need, when we connect with the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, at that point all gates are unlocked for us, at that point we might just become complete again.

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.