Thursday, September 18, 2008
Avodah: Ora et labora - pray and work
In his "Brief an den Vater" (Letter to the Father - his dad), Franz Kafka reports how little František (his name in Czech) was stunned by his father answering his question on Yom Kippur's eve at the synagogue: "What is sung right now”? The father could simply point out the words in the "machzor\מחזור - festive prayer book" without even looking at the book or reading anything! Although more note books of Hebrew exercises were found after his death than manuscripts and books, Kafka - as the many Jewish Pragerjuden (Prague Jews) who spoke German - lived in a transitional society that still endures and affects in many other ways, the Jews as also non-Jewish believers who choose a secular lifestyle of quality. Prague, Budapest and Vienna are the best a la page tours for Israelis in search of their “nebech” (simpleton, poor thing in Czech) roots with strudel (now computerized for net domiciles) and “prst crz krk = finger through the throat” gustoes of uneasiness). The Pragerjuden exerted a special impact on our new-old society.
Let's put it that way: All humans may pray somehow, somewhere, for some reason. Each individual - even say a believer in waterlily deities, full animist or atheist, may address some demands or requests to some superior deity or intercessor. Thus, people would mainly focus on themselves and their capacities to shape a god out of wood, fruit, earth, animals. Some pet addicted may get it with their dogs, cats, or pigeons. Why not? They simply mirror their demands to idols that are under their control and their expectations are primarily self-centered, anthropological by nature. Curiously, their demands to some "deity" appear to be a monologue. Mythologies and their numerous deities are importance because they explain how humankind could get to the One God. Salomon was a very wise king but he fell because of the multitude of his wives and concubines who worshipped all sorts of gods. The same tendency shows at the present.
On the other hand, the Jewish tradition is deeply connected with God as the Bore HaKol Yakhol\בורא הכל יכול, the creator of heaven and earth, time and space. The Jews are indeed either in timeless contact, dialogue with the Adon Olam (Master of Universe, of time, Visible and implicitly invisible world) or emotionally, spiritually, intellectually challenged by Avinu Malkenu\אבינו מלכנו (Our Father, Our King), Avinu shebashamayim\אבינו שבשמים (Our Father Who is in heaven) or HaShem\השם (Name of the One God - the four consonants which was solemnly uttered on Yom Kippur as reminded on that day. HaShem HaMeforash\השם המפורש would rather presuppose that God is "staying aside".
We may think that prayers have been predetermined for ever and cannot change. Praying is linked to time and space. In many aspects, it relies, in the Jewish tradition, upon the first verse of Bereishit\בראשית/Genesis: "In the beginning (bereishit\בראשית: to begin with after an action which is not defined), God created (cut, shaped, thought out; Talmud Sanhedrin 38b) a) the heaven and b) the earth (HaAretz, i.e. a rush - "ratz", according to a dynamic will (ratzon). The Italian Galileo was condemned because scholars then thought the world is stiff and does not move. True Judaism and monotheism underscore that our earth and endless galaxies are on the move. This rotating system imprints, in a positive way that still maybe be unbearable because of changes, all the components of the world, including human beings. These are the last shaped creatures, but God designed mankind with a special body that evolves in a specific and limited room, with a limited space and cultural history.
Prayers developed in a context where there is a strong feeling that "panta rhei" (Greek, all things are in flux = Sanskrit: "sam-sara") and that night turns into day, sunset and night again, by space and time-related areas. Judaism and Christianity as Islam are aware to develop inside the realm of time and that prayers can change the course of time (Habakuk 3:11 when sun “stopped”).
Hebrew "Hitpallel\התפלל - to pray" comes from "palal\פלל = divide" or "pillel": to arbitrate, intercede, e.g. pray as in the Talmud where "these are rising actions" (Shabbat 55b) or in "to tarry a while in thoughts and then lehitpallel - utter the prayer" (Talmud Berakhot V:1). Indeed, prayers have often been a simple conversation with God, sometimes arguing talks (as Abraham about Sodom (Genesis 18:24-33), but always free speech, meditation, demands, requests, supplications, implorations, expectations. Silence or uttered words (Hannah, Samuel’s prophet is the model for Jewish praying), songs, complaints. All traditions insist on the fact that one must pray slowly. Written words appear always new for who pays some attention. The Jews are praying racers, not in the sense that they should read quickly. On the contrary, they should “ruminate” the word of God (“yehgeh\יהגה”, cf. Psalm 1:2) and not hurry up like the heathens. The same is taught by Jesus: “In praying do not babble like the pagans who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:6-8).
In Hebrew, we use “avodah\עבודה” for both our professional activity and “Divine Service”. These are the two facets of one call: how to work, breath and have serious talks with God, hear Him. The word does suggest that we are “servants – avadim, but not slaves!” This is a call to make holiness visible in society. Saint Benedict use to say the same in Latin: “Ora et labora” (pray and do your work). Yiddish has caught up with insights non-Hebrew words from Gentile Christianity showing the profundity of soul demands: “oren\ארען” = Latin: orare, to pray”; “bentshen\בענטשען” as in “lomir bentshen\לאמיר בענטשען” for the Prayer after Meals (Birkat Zimmun\ברכת זימון, introduction) = Latin: benedicere, to bless”; “molyen zikh\מאליען זיך” = Polish: modliwy sie/Russian: pomolit'sia\помолиться, to pray, implore”; “davenen\דאווענען” = French: “divin”, divine – or maybe Aramaic “davun\ܕܒܘܢ - דבון” (to languish)”.
Some people are reluctant to work and rely upon social organizations to fund them, others go on strike or stubbornly refuse to change and can split from society. The same in the world of prayers! Some would never accept prayers or argue about the phrases. All sorts of schools and tendencies exist. Judaism has systematically linked praying and body movements, members on the move. The Quakers shake, mostly in silence… Modern Eastern Orthodoxy insists on the importance of equanimity and personal equilibrium. Western Catholicism includes music instruments that are forbidden in most Oriental Churches as in Orthodox Judaism since the Magrefah, sort of organ of the Temple, is destroyed.
Prayers are often repeated. They constitute a pedagogical tool that allows us to grow at any age. It should not be taught in a rebuking way. Paul of Tarsus wrote: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Prayers can be found on the net, but praying cannot be computerized and is not virtual.
Then, home atmosphere, cooking, family activities, dialogues and times for privacy do constitute a whole part of praying goings-on. Judaism and the Oriental Churches regulate in various ways the sexual life of husbands and wives in order to renew the freshness of love and desire. Intimacy in a family is a major praying activity that makes parents and children alive and enjoying the Presence of God. Kosher food rules and the very similar importance of healthy food in the Churches ( more in force in the Christian Orthodox Churches) insist on getting aware that humans witness for more respect toward everybody and the products of the earth.
Charities, volunteering activities constitute a great achievement as the result of a radiant life of prayers. Encounters are the same as said in the Sayings of the Fathers/Pirkey Avot\פרקי אבות (3:4) and the Gospel (Matthew 18:19-20): “when two or three are gathered in the Name either the study of the Torah or God’s Name” His Presence is a light in their midst.
This teaching about "prayers" was partly published in the "Zevach todah\זבח תודה - thanksgiving sacrifice" that I proposed for the Hebrew communities in 1989 after 10 years of liturgical creation in accordance with the Jewish and Christian traditions. It was based upon the imperative of the Jewish way to utter prayers to God as the Word and the One Who creates, reinvigorates, sustains and maintains us alive. There is one constant teaching which is a fundamental: Hebrew definitely underlines that a servant of God is a man/woman who is a "eved Elohim - עבד אלהים". On the other hand, "eved\עבד" implies that the servant/server are connecting with God and serving Him in a free bond - it is a work: עבודה - avodah. Pope Benedict XVI referred to this saying of Benedict of Nursia: "Ora et labora" in his lecture at the Collège des Bernardins" in the presence of the French intellectuals.
For the 1500 anniversary of Saint Sabba, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem had organized a special session with a series of lectures about the impact of the saint upon the development of the then Palestinian praying services and divine liturgies. Archbishop Aristarchos had insisted upon the fundamentals of monasticism and the structure of the prayers that linked Jerusalem and the Judaean desert original tradition with the rules implemented by Benedict of Nursia. These common bases are significant, in particular when the faithful have abandoned or lost the meaning of their rites.
Praying is a free task, a task that leads to freedom; God's paroles and human parlance come together and can show the Oneness of communities united by true spirituality.
av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel
September 19, 2008 - יט דאלול תשס"ח
Photograph: Jerusalem, oneness of numerous prayers.