Spiritual life means different things to different people. From Torah's early chapters forward, the core of Jewish spirituality has centrally featured personal engagement with the One we call God. Long before fixed liturgies and other books, there was individual dialogue spoken from the heart.
This week's Torah portion harkens back to those ancient times when one-on-One engagement was monotheism's truest spiritual path. In truth, perhaps that's so even now.
Hayyei Sarah 5784 (2023)
Note: These words come during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, sparked by a terror attack on Israeli innocents that became the world's most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust. Because current judicial ethics rules ban me from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
I focus instead on some of the emotional and spiritual implications for us and our Judaism.
"Are you talking to Me?" No, not Robert DeNiro's iconic and salty monologue from the 1976 movie "Taxi Driver." I mean something even more elemental and visceral.
In the 1700s, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov taught that all our liturgy, prayer books and rituals only hint at the essence of spiritual life: speaking directly with God. Nahman challenged us to speak with God not with formalism or cowering, but rather as we'd speak to a beloved friend present right next to us. This practice of hitbodedut (in Hebrew, "being alone together" with God) has become a cornerstone of Jewish spirituality...
... and an evergreen feature of war movies. I can't think of any war movie in which someone alone in a bunker, or in another moment of truth, doesn't have a poignant one-on-One with God. Call it realization, or call it desperation: either way, as the aphorism goes, "There are no atheists in foxholes." I imagine many one-on-Ones are happening now across the Mideast.
I've written before about distinguishing liturgy from prayer. Liturgies are fixed words crafted or collected by authors, and then codified by folks claiming religious authority to set a spiritual agenda. Liturgies have important purposes: by definition, liturgies articulate values and fuel collective experiences. Without liturgies, there could be no communal prayer.
But liturgy isn't prayer. If liturgy is what is written, prayer is what we do. For many moderns, however, liturgies are the only prayer words we have come know, and it's a shame because liturgies also somewhat absolve us of thinking and feeling autonomously. We needn't decide what we'd say: it's prescribed by liturgy. It's right there in the book, or on screen, or fixed to a melody. We needn't risk saying what we believe, want, need or hope – or taking the time to consider them.
But what if we have no book, or the book doesn't resonate with us, or the book doesn't seem to cover this moment, this feeling, this need to connect?
This week's Torah portion (Hayyei Sarah) begins with Sarah's death, Avraham purchasing the first (pre-)Israelite burial place, and the adulthood of their son Yitzhak. Avraham entrusts his servant Eliezer ("God is my help") to take a journey and find a wife for Yitzhak – a momentous task on which any Jewish future would depend. Eliezer sets out on his task with total fidelity. After reaching a particular oasis in the desert, he prays spontaneously to God (Gen. 24:12-14):
וַיֹּאמַ֓ר | יהו''ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם הַקְרֵה־נָ֥א לְפָנַ֖י הַיּ֑וֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶ֕סֶד עִ֖ם אֲדֹנִ֥י אַבְרָהָֽם׃ הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י נִצָּ֖ב עַל־עֵ֣ין הַמָּ֑יִם וּבְנוֹת֙ אַנְשֵׁ֣י הָעִ֔יר יֹצְאֹ֖ת לִשְׁאֹ֥ב מָֽיִם׃ וְהָיָ֣ה הַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֹמַ֤ר אֵלֶ֙יהָ֙ הַטִּי־נָ֤א כַדֵּךְ֙ וְאֶשְׁתֶּ֔ה וְאָמְרָ֣ה שְׁתֵ֔ה וְגַם־גְּמַלֶּ֖יךָ אַשְׁקֶ֑ה אֹתָ֤הּ הֹכַ֙חְתָּ֙ לְעַבְדְּךָ֣ לְיִצְחָ֔ק וּבָ֣הּ אֵדַ֔ע כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד עִם־אֲדֹנִֽי׃
He said, “YHVH, God of my master Abraham, fulfill my task this day and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by a well of water as daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water. Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I also will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You decreed for Your servant Yitzhak. Then I will know that You dealt graciously with my master.”
It's a miracle, or it's a fanciful story. Either way, Torah records a spontaneous prayer, on which the entire Jewish future would depend. Even more, there was no liturgy, because there could be no liturgy yet: there were no books, no religious authorities – just God. Just a one-on-One encounter, and summoning ourselves to fully inhabit that encounter.
For some of us, this notion of divine encounter is as right as rain and as natural as breathing. For others, maybe this one-on-One idea is loaded, heavy, scary, simplistic, irrational, psychotic, narcissistic or whatever else our hearts and minds might throw at it. Some of us might imagine that one-on-One spontaneous prayer isn't Jewish – that instead it's Christian.
Nope. Here is Torah telling us in crystal clarity that spontaneous, unscripted prayer is utterly Jewish, just covered over, or crowded out, by many centuries of codification. Spontaneously prayer is absolutely real – and so too are ambivalent and negative responses. And it turns out, Torah both allows for our halting and disbelieving responses, and even focuses on them.
The story of how is the story of how liturgical music conveys meaning.
In the Masoretic tradition that codified a first musical trope system for chanting Torah, trope conveys meaning – often informed by ancient midrash. At the start of narrating Eliezer's prayer, Torah begins with a simple "He said" (va-yomar), but the trope mark is the extremely rare shalshelet – a jagged vertical line, connoting a chain of up and down notes that struggle to move forward.
The shalshelet appears only four times in all of Torah, and in each instance it conveys struggle or ambivalence. In Genesis 19:16, Lot "lingered" (וַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ) in Sodom though God had marked the city for destruction: Lot was unsure whether that was so, and whether he should flee. In Genesis 39:8, a Joseph enslaved to Potiphar in Egypt "refused" (וַיְמָאֵ֓ן) the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife: Joseph felt torn between principle and lust. In Leviticus 8:23, Moses "ritually slaughtered" (וַיִּשְׁחָ֓ט) a ram for a ritual to ordain his brother Aaron as High Priest: did Moses himself believe this ritual? did Moses want the priesthood for himself?
And now Eliezer's one-on-One begins with a shalshelet: "He said" (וַיֹּאמַ֓ר). Torah's music depicts that Eliezer feels conflicted and ambivalent about his own prayerful words, and perhaps even his very impulse to offer them.
We can empathize with Eliezer. We can imagine him hesitating and questioning: Who he is to speak to God? Is a God at all, or did Eliezer spend one too many hours alone in the desert with his camels? And if there's a God, does God hear prayer? Does God answer prayer? How do we know?
Haven't we ourselves asked these kinds of questions? Do we always believe that there's a One who hears prayer? One who answers prayer? What does it mean for our prayers to be answered if the answer is 'no' or 'not yet' or 'not this way'? Why should prayer matter to a God of infinitude? And if they do matter, who are we – finite, mortal and flawed – to speak them? Are some things too small for God? too unimportant? or conversely, too important to entrust to prayer?
The shalshelet – and many centuries of Jewish spiritual writings – tell us something profound about our reactions to the notion of prayer, a One who hears prayer, and being one-on-One with God. They tell us that our reactions to it all aren't apart from spiritual life but very much part of spiritual life. They don't mean we're doing it wrong: they're a normal and perhaps even necessary part of what it is we're doing here.
Each person has their own shalshelet – their own questions, doubts, wrestles and inhibitions – so a weekly blog isn't the best place to address them. These matters tend to be one-on-one (and one-on-One) matters: be in touch with me if you're interested to explore.
But What if We're Not Pray-ers?
Not all of us are native pray-ers. Not all of us pray without a script or practice hitbodedut, and we might never think to. (I do sometimes recommend it as part of a spiritual trajectory.) As it happens, this week's Torah portion offers another way if prayer (whether spontaneous or scripted in a book) feels theologically challenging.
Back to Eliezer's mission. After meeting Rivkah at the well, Eliezer follows Rivkah back to her family's camp, where they retell their story of how they met. She agrees to go with Eliezer to Yitzhak, and then (Gen. 24:61-63):
וַתָּ֨קָם רִבְקָ֜ה וְנַעֲרֹתֶ֗יהָ וַתִּרְכַּ֙בְנָה֙ עַל־ הַגְּמַלִּ֔ים וַתֵּלַ֖כְנָה אַחֲרֵ֣י הָאִ֑ישׁ וַיִּקַּ֥ח הָעֶ֛בֶד אֶת־רִבְקָ֖ה וַיֵּלַֽךְ׃ וְיִצְחָק֙ בָּ֣א מִבּ֔וֹא בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י וְה֥וּא יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב׃ וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃
Rivkah and her handmaidens woke, mounted the camels, and followed [Eliezer, who] took Rivkah and went on his way. Yitzhak had just returned from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi [=well of the live of one who sees me], settling in the land of the Negev. Yitzhak lasuah in the field toward evening. He lifted his eyes, and behold he saw camels approaching.
This moment would become the proof text for Judaism's afternoon prayer (minhah), which traditionally is brief and happens before evening. Time added lots of words to the communal afternoon prayer, but it's still brief and its origin story remains poignant: a one-on-One can be with words aloud, or in silent contemplation or prayer.
Spiritual life takes many forms – communal prayer, personal prayer, silence, stillness and more. Each has its place in spiritual life and in Judaism's foundation. They can find worthy and holy homes in the field, at a well, in a synagogue, on a yoga mat, at a hospital bed, in a beloved's arms, over a meal, at a birth, at a graveyard, in a war, in making peace, in caring for the wounded, in caring for one another, in letting others care for us, in the grocery store (not while driving to the grocery store), and just about anywhere else. And our inner shalshelet about it all might well come with us: it too is welcome.
"Are you talking to Me," asks God. Especially now, inner shalshelet and all, let's all seek authentic ways to answer, "Yes, yes I am."