What an exhausting business it is, to pray.
The four dapim spanning 31-34 of this massechet are strewn with physical examples of extreme, high-risk interactions with God. Hannah, whose words shatter her into fragments. The exploding fist of Moshe and the potentially fatal fire in his bones. The scorpion, the kicking cattle, the pearl hiding inside it all.
Jacqueline, I consider you exposed a deep truth when you observed as we studied that ‘the body is all over this massechet’. I agree: and I think these four dapim illustrate a new departure for its authors. Finding it impossible to get around the more embarrassing aspects of our physicality as set out on preceding dapim, it seems they resolve, instead, to explore the power and passion the body can offer when directed in prayer. The phrase
להטיח דברים כלפי מעלה
used of both Hannah and Moshe, seems to sum it all up: instead of being trapped by their filth (the root tvh means ‘to smear with mud’) they pick it up and hurl it upwards in the form of human speech. The silent alef becomes the audible groan of the ayin. Rabbi Akiva behaves in synagogue: but at home, at the end of his prayers, we find him in the opposite corner to where he began, worn out by his bending and stretching.
There are two lessons for us, I think. The first is that to be human is, unavoidably, to be physical. We are bodies: real, distracting, sometimes inconveniently exuding bodies. While Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai might like to think of himself as - as you put it - ‘a disembodied head,’ and while our own heads might find that an attractive prospect, we can’t really expect to be leaving our bodies any time soon. The word nefesh, so often used for ‘soul’, is also an energy carried by the blood. What would happen, I wonder, if we were occasionally to embrace our physicality, to let our bodies lead us in prayer? What if we were to tune in deeply to the beating of our hearts, our sweat, our tears, to see if they, too, are a message to God?
Risky? Yes. But don’t these pages teach us that prayer is a risky business?
The second is that prayer - real prayer - isn’t for sissies. As we pick up our mahzorim once again this coming week, I wonder if these models can revive our own prayers. As we creak to our knees and lay ourselves out on the floor, I wonder if we will also feel the fire in our bones, the ice in the blood, the shattering audacity of Hannah, as we once more explore the region between darkness and light?