By Dudu Lieberman | 03/12/2009
In recent generations we became accustomed to rely on our might and intelligence. We have indeed made great achievements, but we have shunned the virtue of humility. The time has come to return to the center of our consciousness the human types who have been shunted to the sidelines
"To You, enthroned in heaven, I turn my eyes," the worshiper says in Psalms. The worshiper knows that decisions are made elsewhere. The worshiper raises his eyes forward and inward, he leaves the feverish activity that preceded the prayer. And since he did so, he is free to search for what had been hidden from him until then
The Jewish people's return to its land gave birth to a series of new Jewish types, all dynamic active people. The new Jews dried the swamps and caused the wildernesses to bloom, established a strong and well-equipped army and a flourishing military industry, clothed the land in a concrete and cement dress, and turned the state into a human melting pot. We became accustomed to rely on our might and intelligence. We have indeed made great achievements, but we have shunned the virtue of humility. Gentler voices are lost in the unceasing tumult of doing, consumerism, and controversy. The voice of the hidden has fallen silent. Aggressiveness, noisiness, and being on edge were not developed by a spiritually independent personality. A person with an inflated or edgy ego isn't necessarily spiritually and morally independent. To the contrary, he generally tends to be dragged like a leaf in the wind after every fashion created by people more sure of themselves than we are.
The human type created in Israel - active, determined, decisive, forcing the issue, opinionated, and willing to use his force - this type was obviously not created just like that. The harsh and hostile reality before which we found ourselves demanded the ability to make decisions and speed of response. In coping with the reality's challenges the "softer" human types were shunted aside; qualities like patience or good-heartedness were pushed to the fringes, and, actually, were eliminated from the public consciousness.
A veteran culture with roots usually has a supply of additional human types, and when their time comes, they are taken from their remote place in the wings and are brought to center stage. The 3000-year-old Jewish culture carries with it a tremendous diversity of communities that developed under differing conditions. In recent generations, however, a rift has developed between the group of Jews who came to Israel and followed a secular and socialist worldview while building the state, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Jewish culture expanses that developed under other conditions and, with a continuity of generations, raised a gallery of other, different Jewish types. We are left with the brief experience of the period of Zionism, and with the human type created in it. I will use a midrash of two Biblical episodes to describe one type raised by Jewish culture, the praying man. To this end, I will relate to prayer as a parable or, more precisely, as a symbol. I will choose to see an existential position in the praying man.
Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Deal Justly?
The book of Genesis (18:23-33) portrays the first instance in which man dares to argue with God. The background of the disagreement is God's desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, flourishing cities along the Dead Sea shore, because of their sins. The Lord views Abraham as an ally and partner in directing the land, and therefore decides to update him regarding His plans. Surprisingly, Abraham questions God's plans, in the name of the principles of justice (verses 23-26): "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? [...] Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"
Courageously and skillfully, Abraham levels criticism at God's course of action. This criticism is so trenchant, so successful in rising to the divine viewpoint, that God has no choice but to agree with Abraham. Nonetheless, it still is unclear whether Sodom will be saved, since, even according to Abraham, a critical mass of righteous individuals is necessary in order to advance the argument: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" The required number of righteous decreases during the course of the bargaining between the Lord and Abraham, and is finally set at ten. This concludes the conversation, at the end of which it is stated (verse 33): "When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place." The wording "his place" should be understood metaphorically, as well: Abraham, who had momentarily exceeded the place of a mortal and had stood and argued with God, now returns to his previous, human, condition.
The next chapter in Genesis relates (Gen. 19:27-28): "Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before the Lord, and, looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln."
Why did Abraham arise early in the morning, and why did he look out? Was this only out of curiosity? This is not the opinion of the Talmud, that stated:
Abraham instituted the morning prayer, as it is said: "Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before the Lord," and "standing" means only prayer, as it is said (Psalms 106:30): "Then Phinehas stood up and prayed."
(Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 26b)
The Talmud argues that it is Abraham's early rising and gazing at Sodom that are the source of the Shaharit morning service. but the proof is complex. The verse in Genesis 19 teaches of his arising in the morning, and about it being the morning prayer, but it does not indicate that this was a prayer! The Talmud deduces this from the indirect mention of the preceding day's events - "the place where he had stood" - with the addition of a linguistic interpretive assumption based on Psalms 106, and assumes that "standing" is prayer. In my opinion, the Talmudic exegesis on the basis of the Shaharit prayer is intended to make a meaningful statement about the first prayer in the day. Every dawn has a day that preceded it. In the yesterday, we stand on our own, before God and before the reality. We stand in argument, we hold our own, we mobilize all our power and knowledge for this encounter. After everything has already been said, the participants leave, each to his way. The following day both stand in wait. The decision on this matter is given over to the people of Sodom themselves, and the production of the decisive scene is given over to the angels who are going to the city. The wait, however, is not empty of content; to the contrary, it contains tension-charged, expectant anticipation. The expectation and the anticipation get Abraham out of his bed and send him to look from the top of the mountain, and to wait. And this is all that can be done now.
Elijah acts in a similar manner on the Carmel (I Kings 18). Under the influence of his wife Jezebel, the Sidonian princess, King Ahab of Israel introduces the rite of the gods of Sidon to Israel. The 400 prophets of Baal and the 450 prophets of Asherah are supported by the throne: "who eat at Jezebel's table" (I Kings 18:19), while the prophets of the Lord are persecuted and in hiding. Before his flight, Elijah informs Ahab that he is imposing a drought on the land. When God decides to end the drought, He sends Elijah to Ahab, apparently to find a way to cause his stance to change, and thereby enable the rain to fall. Ahab charges Elijah with responsibility for the drought, but the prophet stands before him and dares to say (verse 18): "It is not I who brought trouble on Israel, but you and your father's House." After this he suggests that Ahab conduct a public confrontation between the Lord and the idols, In the sight of all Israel, who assemble at the foot of the Carmel, two altars are built. Sacrifices are laid on both, but no fire is applied to them: "the god who responds with fire, that one is God" (verse 24). After the failure of the prophets of Baal, it is Elijah's turn. Elijah prays (verse 37): "Answer me, O Lord, that this people may know that You [...] for You have turned their hearts backward." Fire descends from Heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the wood, the altar, and even the water that Elijah had ordered to the poured on and around the altar to enhance the miracle. The people cheer, and Elijah commands that the false prophets be seized and slaughtered.
After this immense activism, in all senses - the political and the social, the metaphysical and the worldly - only one small thing remains to be done: to cause rain to fall after three years of drought. It is at this juncture that Elijah's behavior completely changes.
Elijah meanwhile climbed to the top of Mount Carmel, crouched on the ground and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, "Go up and look toward the Sea." He went up and looked and reported, "There is nothing." Seven times [Elijah] said, "Go back," and the seventh time [the servant] reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is riding in the west." [...] Meanwhile the sky grew black with clouds; there was wind, and a heavy downpour fell.
(I Kings 18:42-45)
The period of activism has ended, and the time for prayer has arrived. Elijah draws inward, to the ground and within himself, into a fetal position. And thus, doing nothing, he waits for the rain, just as the fetus awaits birth: totally dependent on the envelope that feeds and protects it, lacking the ability to influence the very fact of the approaching birth and unable to hasten it, delay it, or direct its course. There is much tension and much restraint in these verses. The servant is sent seven times to look, and through his eyes Elijah, like Abraham, looks from the top of the mount, and finally sees the tiny sign of change: a cloud as small as a man's hand. For Elijah, in his expectation-laden wait, this sign suffices.
"To You, enthroned in heaven, I turn my eyes," the worshiper says in Psalms (123:1). The worshiper knows that decisions are made elsewhere. The worshiper raises his eyes forward and inward, he leaves the feverish activity that preceded the prayer. And since he did so, he is free to search for what had been hidden from him until then. The worshiper knows to wait.
The model of existence that we need now is therefore that of the person who, along with personal autonomy, has the gift of humility and the ability to discern what is in the hidden and the miniature in the reality. When this type's morning shines, alongside the yesterdays' man of action, our existence will be enriched and diversified, and the countenance of society will be renewed.
Dudu Lieberman lectures on and researches Rabbinic literature
translated by Ed Levin