Blind yourself to the shell of mud. Dig deeply and deeper yet, sift through the darkened embers, search for a spark that still shines. Fan that spark until a flame appears, fall in love with the flame and despise the evil that encrusts it. Until all is consumed in the warmth of that flame.
For empathy is the redeemer of love and the liberator of deeds that shine.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
This is part of my Finding My Metaphor project which I guess started when I wrote Learning Acceptance. I didn’t realize how difficult this would all be or rather, I didn’t realize when I started this line of questioning, that it would lead in such a difficult direction. Certainly starting to openly question whether or not I trust God is a difficult direction. So where do you go from the bottom of the well?
Actually, even before writing Acceptance, I wrote Waiting in a Minefield, which presents an image of trying to proceed on a spiritual journey but being afraid to move. Then I wrote Waiting for Hope in the Abyss, which is where I return to when I get stuck. If I just sit down at the bottom of the well, I can’t fall any further, can I?
So what now? I can just sit here and hope nothing falls on me, or hope that the bottom of the well doesn’t give way. Or I can try to get up and risk the walls of the well collapsing on top of me, burying me even deeper…or maybe actually getting out of here, but that’s a long shot. Actually, I kind of like it here in the dark. It’s quiet and peaceful and it’s easy on the eyes and nerves. I can just take deep, slow breaths and watch the dust swirling around in the air, caught in the beam of light filtering down from the top of the well.
But I can’t wait down here forever, can I?
Rabbi Freeman wrote in the introduction to A Multimedia guide to Jewish Prayer:
A mitzvah is an opportunity to act out your inner soul. A thought of Torah is an opportunity to hear it speaking. But when do you have an opportunity to experience that soul? When, other than at prayer?
To pray comes as naturally to the human being as breathing—where there is an openness to something greater, something beyond, naturally we cry out to it from within. Nevertheless, there is a ladder, a set of skills and techniques that can be learned. With knowledge, with practice and with persistence, we can all learn to excel at the art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.
So I’m sitting at the bottom of my well, and then I realize there is a ladder down here with me that leads to the “art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.” What have I got to lose?
Anybody who has watched the standard morning minyan knows that Jewish prayer is not normal. It is not normal to wrap yourself in a white woolen sheet, strap leather boxes containing ancient scrolls on your arm and head, sway back and forth with your cohorts chanting Hebrew incantations and reading from a parchment scroll. It is not normal to stand before a wall and appear to be speaking to it. It is not normal in this day and age and may never have been normal in any era.
“Normal” is whatever you’re used to in your day-to-day life and, not being Jewish and certainly having never prayed in a minyan, the type of prayer Rabbi Freeman describes above is not “normal” for me. But I did say a few days ago that I would have to restructure the metaphors I feel closest to in order to derive a meaning that makes sense to me.
Even Rabbi Freeman admits that prayer is somewhat “absurd” in acknowledging that we believe God is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Beneficent. After all, God doesn’t need us to tell Him who and what He is. The classic answer to why we pray when God doesn’t need our prayers is because we need to pray. Prayer changes us, not God. God is God. He is immutable, unchangeable, eternal.
We’re not. I’m certainly not.
I mentioned previously that Freeman tells us the word “tefillah,” which we translate into English as “prayer,” “is etymologically related to the root word tofel—meaning reconnect or bond.” When Jews pray three times a day to God, they are reconnecting or “sticking” themselves back to their (our?) Original Source above. In this sense, “prayer” doesn’t mean beseeching, imploring, or appealing to God for something, but instead, it means reconnecting, reattaching, rebonding to the source of our lives and souls.
A fairly inaccurate but still apt analogy would be plugging your dead cell phone into the recharger to restore electricity to its drained battery…sort of.
But we don’t really do that when we pray, do we?
We do not suffice with standing there and acknowledging, “Yes, you are the Omnipotent King and we owe everything to you.” We continue by petitioning, pleading and begging that He change the situation. We repeat again and again, “Let it be Your will…”—directly implying that what we are requesting is not currently His will and we are out to change that.
We are quite frankly creating a revolution: Those at the bottom are dictating to the One Above. Our prayers are definitively not passive—we are taking a real nudnik, back-seat driver role.
And this is a mitzvah—He told us to do this!
The ideal is to reconnect to our source and to restore the Divine spark within us, but in any practical, real-life manner, we ask and plead and beg and implore God to help, help, help us with the mess of our lives.
And in Judaism, this is a mitzvah? Is it a “mitzvah”, an obedient act of righteousness and charity, if a Christian does this?
Judaism interprets the commandment, “You shall serve the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:25, Deuteronomy 6:13) as a positive commandment to pray daily. According to Maimonides:
…this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1)
The Apostolic Scriptures also frame prayer as a positive commandment, making it accessible to the Christian as well as to the Jew:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. –Colossians 4:2-4
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
That’s hardly a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Continue praying. Pray without ceasing. Pray for others. Pray that the word declaring the “mystery of Christ” continues to be preached. Give thanks in all circumstances…even when sitting at the bottom of the well, because praying is “the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul writes, “for you” at the end of verse 18, I have to assume he’s referring to the non-Jewish believers, so that God’s will for me personally is to pray as I’ve described above.
Paul makes prayer sound so noble and selfless, but that’s hardly how most people pray. We pray asking for what we think we need and want. We pray when we’re upset or in pain. We pray with life isn’t going our way. And we have the audacity to ask God to change things around to the way we want them to be. Rabbi Freeman puts it this way:
The question returns: Why would the Ultimate Driver of the Universe want a nudnik, back seat driver?
Until after the final redeemer arrives, there is no person on earth without some fault. Where this person fails on one count, another fails elsewhere.
We don’t appreciate someone else prying into our faults and underlining each one with a red pencil. So we know it is not right to emphasize and magnify the faults of another.
This is the way all people should relate to one another.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
American writer, artist and philosopher
I’m far from perfect God, but I want to trust you. Should I put my foot on the first rung of the ladder?