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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Go to Shul? Why Stay There? (Berakhot 5b-6a)

What is the magic to enticing people to come to synagogue? Is it entertaining worship? Fabulous music? Gourmet food? Intellectually stimulating drashot? In all these questions, two elements are strikingly missing: God and the community.

The Rabbis faced the same issue from this angle: what in fact does it mean to be in shul? We find an answer in the Bavli (masechet Berakhot 5b-6a) that is strikingly different from discussions overheard in savvy Jewish circles these days.

Abba Binyamin begins with the simplest case scenario: two Jews enter a synagogue to pray and one finishes before the other. What happens?

It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says, 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. For it is written: You who tear yourself to pieces in anger, will earth’s order be disrupted for your sake? (Job 18:4)

Abba Binyamin asserts that the prayers of the person who left before his companion was finished praying are “torn up,” that is rejected by God. The proof text verse from Job comes from the mouth of Bildad the Shuhite. Bildad responds caustically to Job’s physical pain and spiritual anxiety. He has run out of patience and displaces his anger onto Job: “You who tear yourself to pieces in anger, will earth’s order be disrupted for your sake? Will rocks be dislodged from their place?” Bildad is sick and tired of trying to comfort Job, sick and tired of hearing his tale of travail, sick and tired of waiting for his friend to snap out of his funk.

So too the one who doesn’t wait for his fellow to finish praying. He came to say his prayers for his own sake without regard to the other human being in close proximity. He didn’t care that his presence meant something to the other person. He didn’t feel in any way responsible for the other person. He had no sense of responsibility or connection to the other person. And so Abba Binyamin continues:

And more than that, he causes the Divine Presence to remove itself from Israel. For it says, Will the rocks be dislodged from their place? (Job 18:4) And 'rock' is nothing other than the Holy One, blessed be God, as it says: You neglected the Rock that begot you, [forgot the God who brought you forth] (Deuteronomy 32:18).

This is powerful stuff with far-reaching implications: When we behave in this selfish its-all-about-me way, we erode any sense of community. Community is built when people consider not only the needs of others, but realize that they are assets in the lives of others. It matters to the second person that the first person stays to keep him company while he davens (prays). The Shechinah (the Divine Presence of God in this world) craves community and seeks community and abides in community. So the actions of the first person matter for not only the second person, but for the larger community.

But Abba Binyamin is saying even more. Note his use of Deuteronomy 32:18 (only the first half is quoted in the gemara, but I’ve given you the second half so the meaning and application of the verse will be clear). When you abandon your companion in shul, it’s like abandoning God. God cares about our relationships because God is party to our relationships. The divine spark in each of us participates in the relationships we develop with one another, which is why they can become so meaningful and important. If abandoning your friend in shul is like abandoning God, then nurturing your friendships also nurtures God.

People come to synagogue for a variety of reasons and from a Jewish perspective there are many legitimate reasons: for spiritual nourishment, for social needs, for intellectual stimulation, for good food, and for a sense of community. There’s an old joke that my chevruta partner told in his most recent posting. Here's another version: Schwartz and Cohen are leaving the synagogue midday on Shabbat afternoon. Shapiro encounters them and says, “Hey, Schwartz, what are you doing here? You told me last week you don’t believe in God. Did you come this morning to talk to God?” Schwartz replies, “Cohen came to talk to God. I came to talk to Cohen.” But notice this: Schwartz was there. He showed up. And he made a difference to Cohen, and apparently to Shapiro, as well.

Abba Binyamin does not merely tell us the downside. He explains the upside to creating community – even between two individuals:

And if he does wait, what is his reward? R. Yosi b. R. Chanina says: He is rewarded with the blessings enumerated in the following verse: If only you would heed My commands! Then your peace would be like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your offspring would be as many as the sand, their issue as many as its grains. [Their name would never be cut off or obliterated from before Me.] (Isaiah 48: 18, 19).

Abba Binyamin again uses a proof text that is pregnant with meaning. The simple act of waiting for another has redemptive potential. I’ve included the end of verse 19 (not included in the gemara) because I think it’s crucial. Our Rabbis presumed we would know it. Their name would never be cut off or obliterated from before Me. When we wait for our companion, when we nurture our relationships and create community, we strengthen our connection to God.

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


tstainman said...

I could not find the citation in the Bavli Berachot. Was I looking in the wrong place. I checked the Art Scroll and the Soncino translation. I did find it in a google web site as a quotation.
Loved the way you pulled meaning from a little known source. Good work and look forward to more insight.

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

You can find the citation beginning 3 lines from the bottom in the Vilna Shas

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

I just checked the Artscroll edition for you and it is found on page 5b(4). thanks for your kinds words.

tstainman said...

Thank you I found it and will confess to a simple error in looking it up. But again thanks. I used your discussion at a service and the people loved it. Keep your comments and learning coming.