Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Long and Short of Prayer / Parshat Beha'alotkha 2014

A friend who is a Catholic priest once told me that mass was designed to last one hour and not a minute longer. I marveled that he could plan with such precision. Wondering if it was his idiosyncrasy, I googled the length of a Catholic mass and, sure enough, scores of people attest that the mass they attend is one hour long, varying only slightly according to who delivers the sermon and whether its a high mass for a special occasion; the lengthiest mass I found was 75 minutes. On shabbat morning in a traditional synagogue service, 75 minutes barely gets you to the Torah service. People frequently complain that Shabbat morning services are too long. Apparently, this is a long-standing Jewish tradition not the long service, the kvetching about the length of the service because Talmud records the complaints in the academies of Babylonia:

Our Rabbis taught: Once a certain student led the prayers in the presence of R. Eliezer and his prayers were very lengthy. The other students said to [R. Eliezer]: Master, how longwinded this fellow is! [R. Eliezer] replied to them: Is he drawing it out any more than Moses, of whom it is written, [I fell down before the Lord] for forty days and forty nights [because the Lord had said He would destroy you] (Deuteronomy 9:25, Moses pleads with God on behalf of the people following the sin of the Golden Calf). On another occasion, a certain student led the prayers in the presence of R. Eliezer and cut them very short. The other students said to [R. Eliezer]: How hasty this fellow is! [R. Eliezer] said to them: Is he any hastier than Moses, who prayed [on behalf of his sister, Miriam, when she was stricken with leprosy] אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ Please, God, please heal her (Numbers 12:13)? (BT Berakhot 34a)

The only surprising part of this account is that the students complain when the prayers are too brief.

The short prayer uttered by Moses on behalf of Miriam is found in this weeks parashah, Behaalotkha, where we are told that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married. While some commentators interpret this verse through the spectacles of jealousy, presuming that Moses siblings are envious of his authority and closeness with God, Rashi, on the basis of Sifrei, says that Miriam criticizes Moses for neglecting Tzipporah in order to be available to God 24/7. Miriams crime, by this thinking, is articulating her criticism publicly. This does not explain why she alone is stricken with white scales while for Aaron there are no consequences; after all, Torah says that they both spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1). In any case, Moses responds immediately to Miriams condition with a five-word prayer: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ Please, God, please heal her (Numbers 12:13). The word please is there twice, comprising 40% of the prayer. Clearly, it is a deeply emotional plea.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), asking why Miriam only merits a prayer of merely five words, explains that there are two types of prayer.

Prayer serves two functions. The first function is to refine character traits and deepen awarenesseither for the person praying, or for the one being prayed for. This type of prayer requires tenacity and perseverance, since correction of flawed traits requires extended effort, and usually occurs gradually over time.

For this reason, Moses needed to pray extensively when he prayed for the Jewish people after the calamitous sin of the golden calf. Why forty days? This period is the time it takes for an embryo to develop limbs and become recognizable as a human fetus. The forty days of Moses' prayer indicated a rebirth of the Jewish people, with a new heart and spirit.

There is, however, a second function of prayer. Sometimes the inner emotions and character traits have already been refined and purified. Prayer only comes to put in words that which already exists in the inner soul. In such cases, an extended prayer is unnecessary; even a brief prayer may express many holy feelings. In the case of Miriam, she had already conceded her mistake. Her healing, both physical and spiritual, required only a short, simple prayer. (Gold from the Land of Israel, p. 163).

This is a surprising comment. We are accustomed to thinking that prayer is for Gods sake: God requires it of us because God desires it. And, indeed, in the ancient world, prayer was understood that way. But Rav Kook was a mystic, and his perspective is often soulfully inward. He is telling us that it is we who need prayer. Prayer can be a time of meditative self-reflection during which we explore our own souls, examine our own behavior, and chart a course for self-improvement. The prayers, then, are tools at our disposal to remind us of appropriate goals. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Spain, 11th century) wrote, Words are the shells; meditation the kernel. Words are the body of the prayer and meditation its spirit (Chovot HaLevavot). The community with whom we pray draws us out of possible self-absorption, helping to insure that our goals for self-improvement are appropriate rather than selfish. Rav Kook tells us that prayer can also be a visceral expression of our inner emotional state, communication straight and unmitigated from the heart. I like Rav Kooks take on prayer; it is honest and constructive.

Another perspective is to see Jewish prayer as falling into five categories that can succinctly be termed: Wow!, Please, Thanks, Oops and Alas! Wow! is a prayer of wonder and astonishment evoked by anything from a rainbow to the birth of a baby. Please is a prayer for what we unselfishly need, from courage to patience. Thanks is an expression of gratitude, marking our ability to appreciate the blessings in our lives. Oops is an admission of wrongdoing, signifying a willingness to take responsibility, and the commitment to rectify the damage we have caused where possible. Alas! is an expression of lamentation, deep sadness, and sorrow, which has reverberated through our tradition historically, but which finds expression in our individual lives, as well. In a sense, each of these five types of prayers fits Rav Kooks framework; perhaps each type has elements of both our expression of our innermost experience, and our search for our better selves. Sometimes that takes a long time; sometimes it takes but a moment.

This can happen in synagogueand when it does we have an opportunity to connect with, and support, the community. It can also happen in venues beyond the walls of the synagogue. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlavs famous prayer embodies Rav Kooks view, and is saturated with Wow! and Please:

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.  May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass, among all growing things.  And there may I be alone in prayer, to talk with my Creator, to express everything in my heart.  And may all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, to send the power of their life into the words of my prayer, so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the spirit of all growing things.

R. Yitzhak tells us that God longs for the prayers of the righteous (BT Yebamot 64a). In its Talmudic context, R. Yitzhak is shockingly suggesting that God inflicts hardship on the patriarchs to induce them to pray to God. Another way to understand this statement is that God only wants to hear from righteous individualsonly their prayer pleases God. I dont care for either interpretation. Rather when I hear, God longs for the prayers of the righteous, I understand it this way: God longs for us to use prayer to make ourselves more righteous. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, inspired by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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