Sunday, April 03, 2005

Berachos 30-34


I Say A Little Prayer for You

Chapter Five of Tractate Berachos is concerned with how one should approach prayer. It opens with a Mishnah (30b) that prescribes an attitude of reverence, suggesting that even a question from a king should not deter one from completing his prayer and “even if a snake is coiled about his heel, he should not interrupt.” However, this is later qualified in Gemara on 30b, where it is clearly taught that one should never place his life at risk by ignoring the attention of an idolatrous king, and on 33a, where it says that “Even if the head of a bull is buried in its feeding basket, go up to the roof and remove the ladder from under you.” The snake is unlikely to strike if you continue to pray quietly but the bull can’t be trusted for a minute!

The text on levity that I cited in a previous post is also in this section, which teaches that we must temper “gaiety with seriousness”; that “in a place where there is rejoicing, there should also be trepidation” (30b). Unbridled hilarity would be an inappropriate stance for anyone who is mindful of the shortcomings of this world and believes they have any power to improve it. Rabbah may have appeared to be excessively cheerful, but he wore his tefillin (30b4). ArtScroll fn 15 says in part, “Some commentators explain that the very act of wearing tefillin has a sobering effect upon the individual.



I Hear the Sound of Breaking Glass

Ravina smashed a precious plate to sadden a wedding party for his own son (31a) but we follow the custom of smashing a cheaper glass as Rav Ashi did at the wedding of his son. The Gemara doesn’t say so explicitly, but by placing these stories together, with Rav Ashi’s last, it is perhaps suggesting that only the act of smashing and not the value of the object is the trigger for reminding us to remain grounded. The text does suggest that the destruction of the Temple is a cause for mourning, but so is the fact that all the nations of the world do not kneel to our God.


I Hear You Knocking

Isaiah 1:11 caps a dispute on whether prayer is more effective than good deeds or sacrifices: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifies? And when you spread your hands in prayer I will hide from you.” Prayer per se does not make a difference: in the absence of an intimate relationship with God, a petitionary prayer is a cold thing. On 32b we are encouraged to feel deeply: “R’Elazar said: From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the heavenly gates of prayer were locked and our prayers are not answered as readily as before, as it is stated: Though I would cry out and plead, He shut out my prayer [Lamentations 3:8]. But even though the gates of prayer have been locked, the gates of tears have not been locked . . .

R’Chanina ben Dosa appears on folios 33 and 34, providing a clear role model for praying. On 33a he confronts a snake that would harm people and places himself in the snake’s path. When the snake bites him, it is the snake who dies (Woe to the man who is met by a snake but woe to the snake that is met by R’Chanina Ben Dosa!). ArtScroll fn 14 explains, “there are certain people . . . who attain such a level of righteousness and closeness to God that they are no longer subject to the natural law.” This is, no doubt, not intended literally.

However, R’Chanina’s sense of awareness is both simple and extraordinary at the same time: “They said about R’Chanina ben Dosa that he would pray for the sick and would then say: ‘This one will live and this one will die.’ Whereupon they said to him: ‘How do you know?’ He answered them: ‘If my prayer is fluent in my mouth then I know that it has been well received and the sick person will recover. But if it is not then I know that my prayer has been rejected.” (34b). The legend is offered that when he completed a prayer for the health of Rabban Gamliel’s son, who was some distance away, he said with certainty that his fever had lifted and it was later “verified” that the fever had indeed lifted at the exact moment when R’Chanina completed his prayer.

These tales prove nothing, but we would be diminished if we did not keep them.


Who Actually Believes this Stuff?

One of my high school English teachers once had the class spellbound as he told us of the time he went trout fishng with Ernest Hemingway. After he had gone on for about ten minutes, he laughed and said, “And you boys believe me!” Evidentally, he had fabricated the entire tale and I was puzzled for some time as to why he would do such a thing. And while I still suspect that he was a slightly crazy old coot, he did teach (perhaps deliberately) the power of a good story to become so deeply embedded that it is never forgotten.

Many such stories are preserved in our Talmud, and the comments on earlier posts to this blog debated what is signified by an aggadic “proof.” In this section, ArtScroll addresses this question: [Quoting Rashba’s Peirushei Aggados] “There are those who err and think that the Sages of blessed memory actually believed the meanings they assigned to the verses contained in their Aggadic teachings . . . to be the verses’ true meanings . . . Their intention was merely to use the words as allusions and prompts to the concept . . .” ArtScroll concludes “. . . the interpretations are merely rhetorical devices to promote recall of important and noble ideas.” (33b fn 27).

There are, however, commentators who believe that there is more here than mere rhetoric: “Maharal . . . maintains that while the primary meaning of the verses cited in Gemara such as ours is certainly the verses’ plain meaning, the verses also contain oddities in word choice and syntax to allude, on a secondary level, to the interpretation expounded by the Sages.” This reading suggests that the verse may not “prove” but it would “inspire,” and that the stories come to meet the verse in a deep place that is perhaps even ordained, making authorship secondary to the truth of the teaching, or making authorship a conduit for a primordial or divine communication. I’m getting balled up in words here, trying to communicate a sense that is beyond my language. I need a parable of my own devising to illustrate rather than explain it. I don’t have one.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Chanina ben Dosa is one of my favorite characters! When the viper bites him and drops dead, that's an allusion to Chanina ben Dosa's unique character: He was immune from the Evil Inclination (symbolized by the snake).

Three cheers for the Rashba! Whenever you're stuck on an Aggadah, the first thing a Yeshiva student does (or should do) is to go to the back of the Gemara and look it up in the Rashba. Not that he makes it too easy -- he sometimes gives you JUST enough info so that you can figure it out for yourself. But I'm cheered that Rabbi ArtScroll cites him to explain clearly how verses are used for Aggadah. There's hope.

11:21 AM  
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