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.

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