Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 7: Hashem's Prayer, Our Blessing

תניא א"ר ישמעאל בן אלישע פעם אחת נכנסתי להקטיר קטורת לפני ולפנים וראיתי אכתריאל יה ה' צבאות שהוא יושב על כסא רם ונשא ואמר לי ישמעאל בני ברכני אמרתי לו יה"ר מלפניך שיכבשו רחמיך את כעסך ויגולו רחמיך על מדותיך ותתנהג עם בניך במדת הרחמים ותכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין ונענע לי בראשו

It was taught: R. Yishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Kah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.
Translation courtesy of Halakhah.com.

Many people view prayer in very simplistic terms. We are lacking something. We want it. So we ask G-d for it. Perhaps we first "butter him up" with praises first, make promises for the future, and end by giving thanks. Then hopefully, G-d answers us and gives us what we want. The incredible stories on today's Daf illustrate the incompleteness of such a naive approach.

Our Gemara begins with a statement that G-d himself prays. If G-d is perfect and lacks nothing then why would he possibly need to pray? Furthermore, the prayer he says is startling. He says: May it my will that my mercy may suppress my anger and may my mercy prevail over all my other attributes so I can act towards my children with mercy and not with strict justice. Why would G-d need such a prayer? If he wants to act in a merciful manner towards us, he just can.

The Gemara then continues with a complementary story of Rabbi Yishmael Kohain Gadol's heavenly vision from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur in which G-d asks R. Yishmael to bless him and R. Yishmael's blessing closely mirrors G-d's prayer. This story has been immortalized in Avraham Fried's beautiful song that you can watch in the video embedded above.

Similar questions occur from this story. Why would G-d need lowly man to bless him. If a blessing means a flowing of goodness, illustrated by the word ברכה, blessing, which is closely related to the word, בריכה, a spring, then why would G-d need our ברכה. He is the source of all goodness and we cannot possibly bestow goodness on him.

I believe that to begin to unlock this Aggadah one first must clarify the true meaning of prayer. Prayer is not just about asking G-d for things we lack. It is an act of introspection, of setting priorities for ourselves on what is truly important. The word פלל, the same root as the word for prayer, means to judge and the word להתפלל, which is translated as to pray, really is the reflexive form of פלל and literally means to judge oneself. When we pray, we are sitting in self judgement. By stating our wants and needs to G-d, we are also evaluating what is truly important to us and deciding whether we think we deserve it. It is for this reason, Rabbi Elefant explains in his Daf Yomi shiur, that even if someone was lacking nothing, he would still be obligated to pray. The process of prayer is tremendously beneficial to our body and soul. The chiddush of our Gemara is that not only do us mortals have to pray but even Hashem chooses to pray as a reflection of his priorities in the world. And what are these priorities?

The commentary HaKotev to Ein Yaakov explains this with a parable, יותר משהעגל רוצה לינק פרה רוצה להניק, more than the baby calf wants to be nursed, the mother cow wants to nurse.  G-d our mother and father in heaven wishes to bestow his goodness on us. He prays that his attribute of mercy should suppress his anger and he should always relate to us, his children, with mercy and not with strict justice. But in order for G-d to nurse us with his goodness, he needs us to want to nurse.

Hashem needs us, כביכול. He needs us to act towards him in a spirit of introspection and self reflection. He needs us to pray. Only after we show that we are deserving will G-d choose to bestow his goodness on us. For this reason, G-d asks R. Yishmael to bless him. R. Yishmael's blessing that G-d should bestow his mercy was an act on our part mirroring G-d's prayer in the heavens. Therefore, G-d כביכול nodded his head in agreement. Just as in the previous Daf, Man and G-d are bound together כביכול in the matching sets of Tefillin that we wear; in this Daf, Man and G-d are joined in prayer.

This esoteric story reflects one of the greatest mysteries of the divine. G-d is perfect. He lacks nothing. However, he allows lowly finite man to speak before him. Not only does he allow this, he desires our prayer. He chooses to use our prayer and the act of introspection that it entails as the vehicle for him to bestow his goodness and mercy on us. G-d wants to nurse us with his goodness, but first we have to pray.

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