Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Prayer seems to work least right when you need it most.

I say this as someone who has recently emerged from a lengthy illness, by which I mean I was in bed for nine weeks. It was the sickest I’ve been in my life, and fortunately I was a little too sick to be aware that there was a possibility of not getting better. But it taught me all sorts of things about prayer and the spiritual life—chiefly that neither are really possible when you’re that sick. Maybe that hasn’t been the experience of other people who’ve been seriously ill, but it was for me. I was reduced to what I would best call an animal state, in which physical functioning – can you get through this day – was the only thing my brain could concentrate on. Attempts at prayer were laughable – it was as though a giant blanket sat on top of me, smothering me, and any words that tried to escape and go higher just sank fruitlessly back onto my pillow. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say. I wasn’t resentful of God, wasn’t angry at God; God was just an irrelevancy. You can’t pray on an empty stomach, goes the saying, and it turns out that for me that was true. The needs of my body overpowered the needs of my soul. I don’t think that’s good or bad, here or there; it just is the way it is.

When I began to crawl out of what I came to think of as the tunnel of darkness, when I could move around and walk and function a little, I tried praying. It was exhausting, but I made some half-hearted attempts. For me praying is a physical activity: I stand, I sit, I bend, I rock, I wrap myself in a tallit, I lay tefillin. And even when I had enough strength to do some of that, there was still something holding me back. Literally: I was tethered to a medicine pump that injected me with needed meds through a subcutaneous abdominal needle, and I had this little purse-bag-thingy with the pump in it that I had to carry around all the time, and this long leash of tubing connecting the two of us. I use words like “leash” and “tether” deliberately, because that is what it came to feel like, and I don’t think I’ve ever hated anything like I hated, hate, that pump. I’m off it now—it’s lying in the corner of my bedroom, waiting for the home health agency to pick it up, and every now and again I wince when I see it out of the corner of my eye. Maybe because prayer is so intensely physical for me, or maybe because tefillin are such an integral part of my prayer life now, I don’t know, but for whatever reason, prayer was impossible wearing that fucking thing. When I tried to lay tefillin, it felt like there were two leashes tugging at me—like my master had come for me, had clicked the beloved familiar leather collar on me and was trying to lead me home, but there was this horrible hateful choke-chain around me pulling me in the other direction and I couldn’t get loose, couldn’t strain free, couldn’t get to where I wanted to be. The doggy metaphors aren’t an accident; like I said, animal state and all that. Besides, religion is etymologically a binding: religio is that which ties us down, holds us fast. An eminently quotable Jewish teacher once said that you cannot serve two masters, and while I served my body—while I was its prisoner—I found it impossible to serve God.

And I’m thinking about all this now because this morning, miraculously, I could.

I’m off the pump now, and am for all intents and purposes a well human being. The aftereffects of my illness are minimal, which is the literal mercy of God. I stand and walk and run and laugh and play in the snow with my children and taste the sharpness of food and oh, all the everyday things that were stripped away from me, and I cry writing this because they are so sweet, all of them, and I will never take them for granted again, until the next time I do.

Baruch atah, Adonai, I prayed this morning in the morning blessings, ha-machazir neshamot lifgarim meitim. Blessed are you, Eternal One, who restores souls to dead bodies. The Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah, has it somewhat differently: Praised are You in whose hand is every living soul and the breath of humankind. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it’s a very lovely editing, since Reform Jews are naturally wary of anything that seems to endorse the idea of a physical resurrection. Except that sometimes. . . sometimes you have experienced a resurrection, and you need the words. I’m not some stodgy purist about editing the words of a prayer – that sort of editing has been going on for centuries, and will for many more. But I do worry that in doing so we are too quick to jettison the words of the past, too quick to confine their meaning to our own narrow assumptions, too slow to let the voices of the past speak to us with present meaning. I was a dead body, and now I am not one. I cried when I spoke the words of that blessing. I broke open, brushed by something in those ancient hallowed words that said to me, yes, you were dead, and now, by My mercy, you live. It is as simple as that.

So maybe I had it wrong to begin with, about prayer. The conversation, the covenant, is the root of our faith as Jews. It is no accident that the foundational document of Judaism, after the Torah, is the Talmud, which is nothing but the record of a centuries-long conversation. And in the Torah itself, God is always saying one thing, and then Jews, from Abraham to Jacob to Moses, are always saying, well, and how about this other? It is a dialogue, always. Maybe I had lost sight of that. Prayer had become all about my speaking, my voice, my actions. Maybe it wasn’t that I couldn’t pray, for all those weeks; maybe it’s that my prayer was being answered. Maybe it was the kind of answer you might give a sick child in the night: shhh, lie back, let me take care of you, you don’t need to talk, hush now. Hush now. Lots of times, right as she’s being tucked in, my six-year-old will be seized by a burst of the must-tell-yous: but this happened today, and this, and I didn’t tell you about this, and you don’t know about that, and given the chance she will rattle on for another good forty-five minutes, and I will have to gently press her back onto her pillow and say, I do know. I promise I know. Now lie back. You can tell me tomorrow.

Tell me tomorrow, God said to me. Hush now. So I hushed, because I had no other choice. And my assumption that I had to speak to God RIGHT NOW was as innocent and silly as my six-year-old’s bedtime confessional imperative, as innocent and silly as our own need to make sure God HEARS us, that he UNDERSTANDS us. Is all the kavanah, all the physical intensity of my prayer just so much “look at meeee, God, watch meeee?” Maybe so. Maybe God is like my own glamorous 1970s Mom, who sat by our pool, spellbound audience (as I thought) to my antics, floppy hat on her head, big sunglasses shielding her half-lidded eyes, the latest Danielle Steele open on her lap, an abstracted cigarette in the ashtray in reach of her elegant fingers: mm-hmm, I’m watching, dear, I promise. Oh yes, that was marvelous. Look at you. Like every mother who hears that refrain a thousand times a day.

There’s a poem by Adrienne Rich inserted at the opening of the Shabbat morning prayers, in the Reform siddur. It goes like this:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.

I thought, before, that I knew the meaning of this not-terribly-complex poem: you make the choice to worship or not to worship, and life happens accordingly. But what if you don’t have a choice? Behold, I set before you this day life and death, says God, the blessing or the curse. But what if the choice isn’t yours to make? What if you can’t make it through the door, what if you don’t? And what I know now that I didn’t know before is that God is on both sides of the door, and always was. I almost didn’t make it through; death was almost the choice that was made for me. And that, I have discovered, would have been okay. Hush now, God would have said. I’m watching. I promise.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly what I needed to hear. I needed that comfort badly. Thank you.