This blog is best read listening to this.
I went to the desert to learn about the desert people, the ancient Hebrews, who spoke to God from the empty space. It was 5am. I was in Mitzpe Ramon. There was no wind, no birds, no leaves rustling, no other people to be heard. Only silence. The instruction was to sit and think for an hour, and then when the sun rose, return to the bus. Fine.
For the first 10 minutes. Still Fine. But then I started getting bored. I stood up, looked around and sawmy friend Baruch praying on the next hilltop. He was wearing his tallit and tfillin. He was speaking to God, maybe God was listening? I have always found tfilla difficult. I go to shule and there is always something that bothers me. I don’t like the shule’s rabbi, its politics, the location of its mechitza, the length of the service, the tunes and so on. I have many excuses as to why I don’t pray at shule so much. That doesn’t mean I don’t go. I go every week, some would say religiously.
Yet I feel further away from God in Israel than I do in Australia. I thought, maybe in the holy city of Hevron, at Maarat HaMachpela where my heroes lie, there I will find my kavana. But Hebron, unfortunately, is one of the most unharmonious sites of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where many people have their lives curtailed every day in the name the sanctity of this cave. Praying at the tombs of my ancestors from behind iron bars, due to the conflict over their bones, was not a place where I could find God.
But now I was in the desert. Here there is no conflict. No blood is spilt for this soil. Who wants to live in this place? This is neutral ground. And, what did God do for Hagar in the location where I was sitting?
“And she wandered about the wilderness of BeerSheva.. and she thought “let me not look on as the child (Ishmael) dies.” And sitting thus, she burst into tears.
God heard the cry of the boy and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “what troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand and I will make a great nation of him” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Gen 21:14-19
I had no excuses not to pray here. There was no politics to bother me in the desert. Davka the opposite. The desert is where my ancestors have prayed, Hagar, Eliyahu, Hannah, and God has listened.
So I tried to pray. I said the Shma, I tried Amida. But nothing. No voice from heaven spoke to me, there was no thunder and lighting, not even a still small voice. I heard only the deafening silence of the desert. I wanted to tell God “Hineni!” But instead I asked Him “Ayeca?”
A week later, I shared this story with my friend Sarah (not her real name) and asked if she has heard God before. She was sure she had. I was very excited. She told me that she once really wanted something in her life, so she went to a rabbi and was told that if she prayed shacharit for 40 days straight at the kotel, her desire would be granted by God. She prayed for 10, 20, 30, 40 days. Nothing happened. On then on the 42nd day, her desire was granted. She was convinced that it was a reward for her tfilla. I asked her, why didn't God grant her desire on day 1? She said, "because God wanted me to earn it, to show I had emunah". “Yafe” I said. "But what if God had not granted your desire? Would you have stopped believing?" Sarah replied “of course not.” I would have understood that I was asking the wrong desire from God. I said “that’s a nice logic there, God wins both ways.” My question was not answered.
So I went to Aviva Zornberg’s Parasha Shiur on Parshat Vyetze. After the class I chatted with a girl named Rina (not her real name) and asked what she did when she had trouble praying. She told that her Rabbi from Kehilat Hadar told her on Yom Kippur, whatever your thoughts about God are right now, tell him. Have a conversation. Whatever you feel, say it. I have tried this too. But how long can you say how you feel, when the audience is an ancient wall whose enormous stones bare only silence despite the overflowing paper requests within her? If the conversation is a monologue, then maybe “God is not in this place?”
But earlier on Aviva had drawn my attention to Yaakov. Yaakov, the ish tam who dwelt in tents, Yaakov, who lied to his father and stole the birthright, Yaakov, who was on the run from Esav. Yaakov, who had a dream, and when he awoke said “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” What was this place? The Torah tells us it was Beit El, which had previously been the city of Luz. Rashi disagrees. He says that place was in fact Har HaMoriah. The place where father Abraham had prayed, and Yitzchak too. But Yitzchak almost died there. So Yaakov was terrified of this place, where had the akeida been fulfilled, he would not have been born. So Rashi says that at this point “Mount Moriah was forcibly removed from its locality and came hither to Luz.” Why did God have to uproot the mountain and drag it to Luz? Yaakov was running way, and avoiding confronting his past. Like a second generation survivor perhaps?
What did Yaakov mean when he said “God is in this place but I, I did not know it.” It was a revelation he had after his famous dream where Bob Dylan says Yaakov “built a ladder to the stars and climbed on every rung.” Chazal say this was the first time in 14 years that Yaakov had slept, having occupied his nights as well as his days studying Torah in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber until this point. But how could Yaakov, who has been in yeshiva for 14 years, not know God yet? Aviva suggested that perhaps he only learnt Sod HaTorah during this time, not Sod HaTfilla.
Sod Hatorah is going directly to what one wants. It is rolling the giant stone of the well and kissing Rachel. It is working to get what one wants. It is control, unity and harmony.
Sod HaTfilla is spending the whole night calling out the name Rachel and waking up to realize that “Behold, It was Leah.” Leah was not what Yaakov desired. But in order to obtain the bechora he had to find his dark side, saying to his father, “Anochi Esav, your first born.” The Sfat Emet says that Yaakov was speaking the truth at this point. Yaakov wants to amplify his identity beyond that of the ish tam yeshiva student. Yaakov needed to become Esav, the one who was destined to marry Leah, despite her crying her eyelashes out in protest. After Yaakov married Leah he hated her.
After Leah bared three children as the unloved wife, Yehuda was born. She said “This time I will praise the Lord.” How did Leah and Yaakov find their peace and reconcile their animosity for each other?
Because Yaakov stopped being Anochi Esav, and became Anochi Yaakov. How did he find his Anochi Yaakov? Like Hagar it the desert, God opened his eyes. And then Yaakov stumbled over it.
So maybe in order to have a meaningful tfilla experience, I will need to find my “Anochi” this year. That is the Sod Hatfilla. Hineni ki karata li.