Flight of the alone to the Alone
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Do we confuse the trappings of prayer for its essence?
JewishWorldReview.com | WHAT is prayer?
It is the defeat of the illusion of human community. For the human condition, as the Greek philosopher Plotinus said, is the flight of the alone to the Alone.
Prayer is the periodic hopscotch to the ultimate loneliness, and the ultimate union. Prayer prefigures the conclusion of life and animates the path of life.
Prayer is paradox, for we pray from out of our inescapable existential aloneness in order to transcend it. We pray for everything that connects us. For children. For family. For community.
For the ill - that they may stay connected to us.
For the single - that they may find a spouse.
For the endangered - that they may rejoin their loved ones.
Mentors can teach us the meaning of the prayers, or can model what it is to pray, or can, perhaps, inspire us to pray to begin with; but prayer itself is the purest proof of the irreducible isolation of the human being.
Prayer signals paradoxes. Jews pray in a minyan, a microcosm of the entire Jewish people; yet, prayer is not together. Even as I stand next to someone as I recite the Silent Prayer, I focus on my thoughts and tremble before G-d, simultaneously enraptured. If I am praying with kavvanah (intention), the person praying next to me does not exist.
Neither does this American adage, "the family that prays together stays together." The family that prays together is not praying. No two human beings, no matter how closely related, can offer up their deepest thoughts, joys or anguish, together. If they do, it is illusionary prayer.
Prayer is not about feeling good in relation to other people. It is about connecting to the awesome, fearsome, loving, ultimately ineffable Creator of the universe.
Another paradox: The words of prayer, no matter how fervently felt, no matter how focused, are asymtotic. Words of prayer may come closer and closer - endlessly closer - to a true expression of our deepest selves; but ultimately the truest prayer is silence. Words can never fully capture our deepest yearnings. The truest prayer is surrounded and permeated by silence. "To You, silence is praise" (Psalms 65:2). Such is the paradox: Only careful recitation of the precise words of the prescribed prayers disclose their higher, silent shape.
Still another paradox: A common goal in prayer is to seek the means, the patience, the skill, the insight, the self-scrutiny, the humility to find ways to improve or repair relations with other people. Only by my flight from the horizontal sphere, from actual human relations, during moments of confession and of request during prayer, can I hope, via my discourse with and before the Alm-ghty, to attain the improvement and repair that I seek.
A fallacy: egalitarianism in prayer. Egalitarianism is horizontal. Prayer is vertical. Egalitarianism is social. Prayer is spiritual. In society, people should be equal before the law, and, as much as is practicable, afforded equal opportunity. That is the language of human relations. Prayer is the language of Divine relations.
In prayer, there can be no equality, for there is nothing to be equal to. Existentially isolated before G-d, the individual reaches beyond; yes, with some kind of almost mystical, unexplainable assist from the minyan around him, or her. But the praying community is not of the essence, which is: Do I have the courage to face my ultimate contingency as a human being; the courage to reach out to, to communicate with, the being Who cannot reveal Himself in His totality even to the recipient of His revealed will, Moses? "No human can see Me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Do I have the courage to acknowledge my existential loneliness as a precondition to prayer?
Do I have the courage to pray?
Or, do I instead surround myself with every manner of illusionary cushion, filter and social support in prayer - with, for example, a spouse, a friend, a rabbi, a special kind of seat, or sefer Torah or sermon or song? I may frankly admit that I need a special song or setting to bring myself to pray, but do I have the courage to admit that I frequently confuse the aids to prayer for prayer itself? Do I have the courage to face the ultimate aloneness of both me, the alone, and of the Alone; and of the induplicable relation between us?
In other words, do I confuse the trappings of prayer for its essence?
Do I try to escape or transcend those trappings as the best self-training to attain the essence?
THIS week's Torah portion describes the construction of the Tabernacle, the place of prayer in antiquity, where, if anything, the cutting, inescapable essence of the human being was so much more stark than in the successors of the Tabernacle - in our synagogues and temples, our places of verticality, where we have only words to take us upward. In the Tabernacle, animals were slaughtered before our eyes, as "there but for the grace go I." Our ultimate contingency before the Creator, our personal statute-of-limitations on this earth, came across viscerally, directly, unavoidably.
As successors to the Tabernacle and the ancient holy Temples, our synagogues and temples must conspire to place us, as much as possible, in the most realistic confrontation with our Creator. That is why I find egalitarianism irrelevant in our places of prayer. It is tough enough to assume the ultimate human pose for just a few moments, to close out the distractions of our endlessly busy society, to escape the illusion of my permanence and power, to muster the courage to face my Creator - without also having to cope with the horizontal universe that preoccupies me virtually every waking moment.
A moving tune to a prayer may take me upward, but, equally, it may take me down. It may seduce me into confusing the end for the means. In prayer, a tune is the means, not the end. Music is the goad, not the goal.
A wonderful social gathering at the end of the prayers may reward me for coming to the synagogue or temple and serve my normal, valuable need for human discourse, but it may also fool me into thinking I extracted the shul's meaning and essence.
If I can secure a time of peace with my spouse or children, or relatives or friends, only in the synagogue or temple, blessed be this setting for healing me in a way that another setting cannot. Yet, the price will be high. I will have failed to muster the courage to contemplate, let alone achieve, the ultimate healing, the purpose for which the Tabernacle and now the synagogue and temple was created: the flight of the alone to the Alone.
To comment, please click here. JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on biblical and Judaic themes.
JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on biblical and Judaic themes.
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© 2013, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
© 2013, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg