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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pray in shul or on my own? (Berakhot 8a)

Am I more obligated to the community or to myself? A perennial conundrum. The passage from Berakhot 8a Rabbi Rieser discussed in his last posting makes clear this is not a new issue: then tension between communal and individual worship has been around a good long time. If being part of the community and fulfilling my own individual needs coincide – then the tension dissipates. But often they do not.

(The problem is amply demonstrated by the difficulty in collecting a weekday minyan in many communities on a summer evening. Long, light, lovely summer evenings to dine in the backyard, go for a walk, and play Frisbee butt up against the call of community, and often the community loses out.)

As Rabbi Rieser explained, Resh Lakish elevates communal obligation above individual need (daf 8a) in response to R. Nachman’s assertion (bottom of daf 7b) that he cannot and will not go to a synagogue to pray.

R. Yochanan offers:

When they told R. Yochanan [who lives in Eretz Yisrael] that there were old men in Babylon, he showed astonishment and said: Why, it is written: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land (Deuteronomy 11:21); but not outside the land [of Israel]! When they told him that [these old men] came early to the Synagogue and left it late, he said: That is what helps them. Even as R. Joshua b. Levi said to his children: Come early to the Synagogue and leave it late that you may live long. R. Aha son of R. Chanina says: Which verse [supports this claim]? Happy is the man who hearkens to Me, watching daily at My gates, waiting at the posts of My doors (Proverbs 8:34), after which it is written: For whoever finds Me finds life (Proverbs 8:35).

R. Yochanan is astonished that anyone makes it past middle age in Babylonia given that Deuteronomy 11:21 stipulates upon the land, meaning in the Land of Israel. What can explain the remarkable longevity of these old men? They invest long hours in the synagogue. R. Yochanan produces two verses that are used to support the claim: My gates and My doors are taken to refer to the synagogue, the locus for where one finds Me (and hence) finds life.

Why is attendance at synagogue the secret to longevity, the magical mix of multivitamins, statins, and low-blood pressure medication that defies the implication the Rabbis deduce from Deuteronomy 11:21 that those who live outside Eretz Yisrael will never live to collect Social Security? Perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that life lived with and among others – in community – is good for our health: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need communities (networks, if you prefer) of loving, caring, supportive people. There is abundant research demonstrating that those who enjoy the blessing of a community experience less depression, fewer health problems, and enjoy longer life. Is this what gemara cares about? Absolutely! Torah is about the quality of life, not only the quality of our living.

Does it work for everyone? No, nothing works for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for religious life any more than there is for bicycle helmets, pantyhose, or education. And we find on daf 8a Raba recounting a teaching of R. Chisda:

What is the meaning of the verse: The Lord loves the gates of Zion [Hebrew: Tziyyon] more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Psalm 87:2)? The Lord loves the gates that are distinguished [me-zuyanim] through halakhah more than the synagogues and houses of study [the term here is batei-midrash and refers not the great academies of Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael, but rather to places of popular, aggadic learning that did not indulge in the study of halakhah]. This conforms with the following saying of R. Chiyya b. Ammi in the name of Ulla: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be God has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone. So also said Abaye: At first I used to study in my house and pray in the synagogue. Since I heard the saying of R. Chiyya b. Ammi in the name of Ulla -- “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be God has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakhah alone” -- I pray only in the place where I study. R. Ammi and R. Assi, though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, prayed only between the pillars [i.e. in the House of Study] where they used to study.

R. Chisda claims that the trauma of the Destruction of the Temple exiled not only Israel, but also the Shechinah (God’s Divine Presence in the world). God is felt, experienced, welcomed into our world only through the narrow confines of halakhah, the process of discerning God’s will through study and practice that so engaged the Rabbis and kept Israel a community through common observance. Perhaps R. Chisda is also suggesting that prayer following the Destruction lacks kavannah (sincerity and intention) and hence God cannot enter our lives and experience through prayer.

But here’s the punchline: Abaye, who changes his ways on the basis of R. Chisda’s teaching, thinks he is turning his back on the synagogue community in favor of halakhah. But look what he does! He spends long days studying with his colleagues and prays with them thrice daily in the House of Study. He has become exactly like the “old men” who come early to shul and stay late; he has just relocated to another shul: the Bet Midrash (House of Study). He is still in the embrace of community; he has simply relocated to another community.

And here’s one last thought: you might not feel that synagogue provides the best and most spiritual venue for prayer for you on each occasion. We all feel that at times. It can be very tough. But consider the possibility that your presence benefits others. You have much to contribute to the community by being there.

Hinei ma tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad / Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together (Psalm 133:1).

(c) 2009 by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

Rabbi Arthur Segal said...

todah r'amy: your words are wise as well as soothing. hope you had an easy fast. shalom, r'arthur