A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who's Praying Who?

Beautiful Weirdness from the Talmud.

In the Talmud (Brachot 7A if you care) there is a "whoah, heavy" moment (Dude, have you watched the Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon?) that just blew me away when I read it.

Following an assertion that God prays, the question immediately comes up, "Well, what does God pray?"
Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, [God prays] “May it be My will that My mercy will conquer My anger, and that My mercy will overcome My [other] attributes. And may I deal with My children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.”

Huh? To whom - or is it, to Whom - is God praying? "May it be My will"? Who is controlling God's will? If it is merely God focusing God's own intention so that God remembers to be merciful, does this teach us something about our own prayers? Are they simply words intended for the one who prays? One way to deal with this is to say that God is actually powerless. Perhaps the prayer reflects Divine acknowledgment that the universe moves along and God can only say "May it be...."

And what are we to think, as we pray? Keep in mind that many of our blessings begin with this same formulation (May it be Your Will....) If we mimic God, who is praying, and if clearly God can have no object to whom Divine prayers are directed, then are we praying to no effect?

Things get stranger. This passage is followed immediately by a story:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said, “Once I entered into the inner sanctuary [the Holy of Holies] to make an incense offering. I saw Achtari’eil Yah Adonai Tzva’ot, who was sitting on a high and elevated throne. He said to me, ‘Yishmael, My son, bless Me. I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy will conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy will overcome Your [other] attributes. And may You deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.’” He bowed to me.

Dude. Pass the Fritos. It could be that the previous prayer - the one that God is understood to pray - comes from this. That is, this story about Yishmael may be placed here as an explanation of the previous paragraph. So, the Talmud is saying, "How do we know that God prays that prayer? Well, Yishmael once blessed God with it, and God recognized the legitimacy of the prayer by bowing [a commentator imagines God saying "Amen"].

But it could work in the other direction [hat tip to Channah Rose for this]: it could be that God's prayer is proof that when Yishmael encountered God, the prayer Yishmael uttered was put in his head by God. So, Yishmael had the experience of praying by his own volition but was actually a vessel for words planted in him by God.

This also suggests a way to understand the meaning of prayer in our experience. Words that feel either like spontaneous outpourings of the heart, or words that come to us prescribed by the tradition, are actually words "returning to their source." Seen in this light, prayer becomes a meditation, a deep and profound meditation, with subject and object coming together; matter and maker becoming one through meditative language itself.


  1. Comments about Rabbi Josh’s blog, “Who’s Praying Who?”
    I am unable to compete in debate with the quick mind and memory recall of Rabbi Rose. However, I do come from a position of insignificance to rely on the Lord God Almighty of Israel to fulfill my longing for the proper understanding of Him in order that He might restore my soul so that I will have a proper view of myself in relation to Him and in relation to other people, both good and bad. This I do in quiet contemplation so that I might shed light upon the ignorant thinking of the world.
    I, like other people, see the world through a lens. I do seek the Lord, so that He will provide the proper lens for me to see the world through. I have the sin of being self-conscious and not analyzing what is said when I am in a group of people. When I am alone watching TV or by myself sitting in the back of the synagogue or church I am able to critically analyze what is said through a lens the Lord provides for me.
    I was very critical of Rabbi Rose that He could even suggest that the Lord prays. But I remember asking the Lord the same question when He was teaching me how to pray to Him.
    It has taken a life of pain and sometimes doubt and anxiety to realize that truly the Lord knows all things, is all powerful and soon will be vindicated and recognized as being perfect.
    He is an infinite spirit with an infinite mind that appreciates our ways, but His ways are not our ways. He does not pray but He teaches us how to pray so that our character will be developed in such a way as to be good and acceptable to Him. He is perfect and has no doubts or insecurities so He does not cover up anything in His character or abilities, but instead comforts us by reassuring us that He will guide us and teach us His ways so that we can live in peace with a feeling of love and security surrounding us.
    I can see that Rabbi Rose is being caught up in a beautiful clouded mystic world of youth which he puts himself into when he says “have you watched the Wizard of Oz while listening to the “Dark Side of the Moon”. But this has detached Rabbi Rose from understanding the beautiful reality of the Lord God Almighty of Israel. It might take a lifetime to come to an understanding and appreciation of the goodness and sovereignty of the Lord, but eternal joy and communal family praising of Him is the reward.
    Rabbi Rose quoting with awe that “perhaps the prayer (attributed to God) reflects Divine acknowledgement that the Universe moves along and God only says “May it be…” shows that he still has development necessary for a complete understanding that God is the ultimate teacher and never a student.
    The Lord God Almighty teaches us how to live and pray so that He can refine our character to create a peaceful loving world.
    In the Talmud the twisting of man’s logic to fit the logic of God should teach us why only prophets chosen by God directly should speak for the truth of the Lord.
    I am confused that when Yishmael blessed God with the same prayer that God attributed to Himself that God said “Amen”. Could it be that the Lords spirit son, Jesus, in the temple was the one who said “Amen” because he recalled the prayer his Father, the Lord, had taught him to pray while he was acting as proxy to the Lord God Almighty of Israel, sovereign of the Universe.
    Channah Rose has a very good understanding of how the prayer was conveyed to Yishmael but then spoken by Yishmael to mankind by his own free will.
    I believe the prayer given to Yishmael from the Lord was done so that Yishmael understood the mercy of the Lord God Almighty, but at the same time His perfection but that Yishmael attributed the lack of control of anger to the Lord God Almighty of Israel instead of to His son Jesus.

  2. A beautiful teaching, rabbi. We are but dust so of course any efforts we make to characterize God are, necessarily, incomplete. See Maimonides chapter on the Attributes of God from the Guide for the Perplexed. Mark, you shouldn't take any characterization of God (eg, as a student) as a divine limitation, but as a mortal mechanism of belief. What better way to become the best student of awe with such a model? What better model for grief than to see God weep? That is the purpose of the midrash that God weeps over the Egyptians lost in the Sea of Reeds. In this way God is the ultimate teacher.

    This duality within prayer reflects the concept of the duality of the divine and mortal within us. An interesting thesis describing the nature of early religion is contained in Julian Jaynes "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." While you might not agree with his thesis, his description of the profound connection among consciousness, language and God is compelling.

  3. Comment to Pack about His studies to understand the Lord God Almighty of Israel

    Dear Pack:
    I agree that we are completely inadequate in being able to characterize God in words. But God offers us hope on our death bed that the messiah will enable good mortals to become immortal living in a world to come of peace and harmony. Thus I do not despair that we merely return to the dust.
    I do take the characterization of God as being a student as a false assumption of divine limitation. Mortals attribute their own limitations to being the same limitations of God. Instead of using another student as an example to follow we should study and fully concentrate our efforts of learning to please God and to gain His acceptance. He is a most kind, gracious and understanding teacher.
    Since God gave the world the messiah, He will only weep over the messiah after judgment. He will not weep over anyone else after redemption and healing has come. It is true that He weeps now over victims in this world, but that is just for a short time before eternity. The Lord God Almighty of Israel did not, and will not, weep over the Egyptians lost in the sea of Reeds. As a student you did not learn from this lesson that the Lord judged the Egyptians for their wickedness and oppression and He did not weep over them or forgive them because they would not change.
    There is no duality in God. He is good and does not accept unrepentant wickedness.
    Please do not think that I do not appreciate your growth which has been developed by honest study, but the people who taught you these things about the infinite all knowing and all powerful God were not completely right.

  4. I am actually even more moved by this passage from the Talmud than when I originally brought it to the Torah study.

    Yishmael's experience in the Holy of Holies can be seen as a beautiful and profound experience of intimacy with God. It is the kind of moment that we strive for in what people refer to as "prayer." But that word doesn't capture the potential power of what is really a meditation.

    Imagine Yishmael in complete solitude in the Holy of Holies. The loud crowds are behind him, the smell and sights of the sacrifices are, as well. Now it is quiet and he has a shocking experience of confrontation with God.

    I was talking with a friend about this this morning: we shouldn't try to understand Yishmael's experience rationally. Don't try to explicate or decode the theology in a rational sense because the experience itself is non-rational. One way to understand Yishmael's experience, though, is as one of complete unification in which the distinction between subject and object, or between I and other, collapses completely.

    If we don't walk into the Talmud, or prayer, or Torah learning in general with preconceived notions about what our relationship to God should be, we can find ourselves continually surprised and amazed by what happens. Thus, the Talmudic description of this experience of unification doesn't threaten the Jewish vision of the God-human relationship. It is part of that vision - just one more color on the Jewish palate.

  5. Rabbi Josh is right that many people’s experiences, including Rabbi Yishmael’’s, and someone I should not mention, cannot be fully understood rationally except by the Lord God Almighty of Israel.
    While Rabbi Josh is right that we should not walk into the Talmud, or prayer, or Torah study with preconceived notions about our relationship wit God, we should learn from previous life experiences and study, a little about what to expect from the Lord Adonai. For instance, if anyone were to go into the Holy of Holies, fear of the awesome perfection of the Lord and whether we had perfected our souls enough to be worthy in His presence should grip us with fear of death. We know from experiences in life that the Lord God Almighty is a most merciful and gracious God, but we should acknowledge His awesome superiority in utter humility.