Why when I called, was there no answer? – Berakhot 6

Different approach today, just some little things from the Daf which caught my eye.

The page picks up a discussion started on 5b:

When two people enter a Synagogue to pray, and one of them finishes his prayer first and does not wait for the other but leaves, his prayer is torn up before his face.

On one level the Talmud is hinting at a level of physical danger, but I also think it’s talking about some kind of existential isolation, the destruction of communion.  There are moments in religious life for going it alone, but when two people begin something together, the idea seems to be that the communal spirit and energy is essential to its completion, one should stick around and wait for his friend.

What is the benefit of waiting?  The blessings of this verse:

If only you had listened to My mitzvoth then your peace would be as a river, and your righteousness as the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:18)

Great imagery, and a real emphasis on the value of patient compassion, ‘if only…’.  There’s an injunction to slow down, to alter the pace of our attentions and expectations.

The method of the Talmud really strikes me here. It makes this abstract value very concrete, and hence, I believe, much more memorable.  We may well quickly forget a discourse on ‘patient compassion’, but the image of the guy abandoning his friend in shul will linger for a while.

On another note – this time finding some virtue in being alone:

And how do you know that even if one man sits and studies the Torah the Divine Presence is with him? For it is said: In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and I will bless you.

This contrasts with previous verses in the discussion, where God seems to already be present where people study.  In this case, for one individual studying on his or her own, God makes the effort to come to them and bless them, He makes the move.  I like that, the concern of the Alone for the alone, the warm maternal embrace one can find through engagement.

Another thing.  About a year ago I left my job, and was suddenly able to start attending shul again on weekdays morning, something I very much enjoyed.  At first I felt a bit of a stranger, people assumed it was a brief flirtation, but after a while they realised I was likely to be around for a while.  One day, I came home and told my wife that I knew I was part of the crowd now, I’d been accepted.  She asked how I knew, and I said ‘simple, today they started abusing me for being late!’.

That morning camaraderie is captured in the following:

If a man is accustomed to attend Synagogue daily and one day does not go, the Holy One, blessed be He, makes inquiry about him.

Brilliant – God Himself is paying close attention to who is and isn’t turning up at minyan!

It goes without saying that we have to read this in the right spirit, neither too literally nor punitively.  But I think there is truth here, that some part of the group dynamic, the community spirit, is disturbed even by one person not turning up.  When the group is well, something Divine is in their midst.

And again – ‘If a man is accustomed…’.  This only applies if you’re already in the game, if you’re playing.  We’re not legislating universally here, we’re just reflecting on the shared experience of an extremely particular culture, a quite unique form of life.  This is how it is for us.  That’s all.

Continuing God’s intimate involvement in synagogue life:

R. Johanan says: Whenever the Holy One, blessed be He, comes into a Synagogue and does not find ten people there,  He becomes angry at once.  For it is said: Why, when I came, was no one there? Why when I called, was there no answer?

Good to know that God feels the same way about prayer that we sometimes do – ‘Why was there no answer?’.  It’s a two way thing, both parties need to ‘turn up’ for anything to happen.

Finally, to end on a warm and fuzzy note:

R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greet him, he should greet him first.  For it is said: Seek peace and pursue it.

And if his friend greets him and he does not return the greeting he is called a robber. For it is said: It is you that have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Lessons in social lubrication – the value of approaching friends – and strangers too – with a warm and welcoming disposition.  To spoil the vibe is to ‘eat up the vineyard’, to engage in a form of social stealing, a draining of the well of goodwill which keeps things going.

Leave a Reply