fbpx
Monday, August 10, 2020

Tears in a Bottle

Enjoying this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

In a cabinet in my synagogue’s foyer is a small glass bottle with two openings. It is an object from around 100 C.E. which caught and held the tears of those who mourned the destruction of the Temple. According to a legend, it was believed that the Messiah would come when the bottle was filled.

That the tears of the suffering matters to God is indicated by Psalm 56:9, which says: “You have counted up my tears in a bottle.” Those tears have bearing on the yearning of the rabbis to articulate a new way of drawing close to God after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of its cultic technology of sacrifice. It also describes prayer to us in an evocative and unstructured way. The need to express the suffering those tears revealed is a theme that runs throughout the examination of prayer in rabbinic literature with the transformation of Hebrew religious life and the emergence of prayer — “the service of the heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

Midrash and Talmud sought to answer the question: What is “prayer of the heart”? What makes prayer work? Pursuing these topics, they turned to this week’s parasha, Vaetchanan, in which Moses implored God to annul the decree forbidding him from entering the Promised Land. The rabbis were apparently concerned because Moses’ prayer was not answered. They sought to know why the prayer of one as great as Moses should be unrewarded and assumed that the fault must somehow have been in the nature of Moses’ request. In exploring what was wrong with Moses’ request, they give us a vocabulary for understanding their view of prayer and teach us how to use prayer to cope with our own trauma.

Deuteronomy Rabbah’s Midrash on Parashat Vaetchanan initially questions Moses’ voice tone, indicating that perhaps Moses cried out too loudly, comparing him with Hannah, the paragon representative of prayer of the heart, who spoke softly, “praying in her heart; only her lips moved, her voice could not be heard” (1 Samuel 1:13).

The timing of prayer was also seen as important. The rabbis drew from scripture the understanding of the need to pray at three precise times a day, established by the three patriarchs. So Moses might not have prayed the proper number of times a day or at the right time. He might also have failed to accompany his plea with a suitable accolade. They remark, based on the example of King Solomon, that some sort of adoration must accompany prayers of petition.

But most significantly, the Midrash examining this parasha offers a description of the inner experience of prayer, revealing that “if a man directs his heart to his prayer he may be confident that his prayer will be answered.” This focus, known as kavanah, is best described by the greatest gift of this Midrash, in which Rabbi Johanan reveals his understanding of prayer of the heart. He gives 10 synonyms for prayer. Many of them are words used in the biblical description of the emotional state of the Hebrews trapped in the depths of slavery: cry, lament, groan, sing, encounter, trouble, call, fall, pray and supplicate.

Rabbi Johanan’s description of prayer empowers us to give voice to our deepest yearnings as a way of reaching out to God. Examining these 10 words may not get Moses over to the Promised Land or convince us that justice was done to Moshe Rabenu, but it reveals an understanding of prayer as an expressive technique. It illustrates, with biblical pictures, our ancestors at prayer and gives us precise images of prayer with kavanah. 

These words appear in some of the most passionate expressions of yearning depicted in the Bible, as our ancestors, in moments of profound vulnerability turned to God in their anguish and cried out. They include not only the cries of the children of Israel from the depths of slavery, they also echo Job as he described the depth of feeling with which he would need to express “the anguish of my spirit in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). We hear King Saul’s plea for God’s mercy as Saul flung himself prone on the ground (1 Samuel 28:20). We see the terrified Judah with his brothers as they entered the house of Joseph and fell to the ground (Genesis 43:18); Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:2); and Queen Esther, as she lay at her husband’s feet, begging for mercy for herself and her people (Esther 8:3). With these role models for the prayers of our hearts, we are given permission to pour out our tears and offer them to God, and know that these deeply personal expressions are counted as prayer, just as Psalm 56 affirms, that God counts our tears in a bottle.

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual counselor. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. Rabbi Brener is a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood and can be reached at [email protected]

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

Elton John Says He and Husband Signed Letter Condemning Racism, Anti-Semitism

"There is no room for any kind of prejudice in music, or in society as a whole."

Jewish Congressional Candidate Alex Morse Faces Allegations of Inappropriate Relationships

He argued that his relationships were consensual but acknowledged that he has "to be cognizant of my position of power."

What Midrash Can Teach Us About Our Current Social and Political Turmoil

There is a lot to be learned from the margins, and from the spaces and silences between words and sentences.

Israeli Protesters in L.A. Call on Netanyahu to Resign

45 Israeli Americans gathered outside the Israeli consulate building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign.

The Orthodox Female Spiritual Leader Working with Converts

Sapir is the only woman in Israel to have successfully completed the five-year course.

Former Major League Player Cody Decker Says Anti-Semitism Is ‘Rampant’ in Pro Baseball

"I hate every half-measure response Major League Baseball always makes.”

President Trump Reportedly Lashed out at Sheldon Adelson, One of His Biggest Donors

Trump was reportedly angry that Adelson wasn't donating more.

Today, the Real Rebels Defend Israel

These days, many young American Jews feel that it’s cool to go against Israel and take the side of the Palestinians. In fact, it may be more conformist than cool.

Lebanese Information Minister Resigns Amid Unrest Following Beirut Disaster

The decision was made as a “response to the public will for change,” minister says • Hezbollah chief, Lebanese leaders hanged in effigy in Beirut protests.

Trump’s Germany Ambassador Pick Under Fire from Jewish Groups for Statements on Immigrants and Nazi History

The nomination of Douglas Macgregor, a decorated combat veteran who now frequently appears on Fox News, made headlines this week after CNN’s K File unearthed a long history of the retired colonel’s comments.

Culture

Elton John Says He and Husband Signed Letter Condemning Racism, Anti-Semitism

"There is no room for any kind of prejudice in music, or in society as a whole."

Former Major League Player Cody Decker Says Anti-Semitism Is ‘Rampant’ in Pro Baseball

"I hate every half-measure response Major League Baseball always makes.”

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Virtual Theater: ‘Fugu’ Tells Little-Known Holocaust Story

"Fugu" is based on the little-known history of how Japan sheltered 6,000 Lithuanian Jewish refugees in the city of Kobe, to protect them from the Nazis.

‘A League of Their Own’ Gets TV Remake Starring Abbi Jacobson, D’Arcy Carden

Amazon Studios is turning “A League of Their Own” into an hour-long series from creator and star Abbi Jacobson who will executive produce with Will Graham.

Latest Articles
Latest

Elton John Says He and Husband Signed Letter Condemning Racism, Anti-Semitism

"There is no room for any kind of prejudice in music, or in society as a whole."

Jewish Congressional Candidate Alex Morse Faces Allegations of Inappropriate Relationships

He argued that his relationships were consensual but acknowledged that he has "to be cognizant of my position of power."

What Midrash Can Teach Us About Our Current Social and Political Turmoil

There is a lot to be learned from the margins, and from the spaces and silences between words and sentences.

Israeli Protesters in L.A. Call on Netanyahu to Resign

45 Israeli Americans gathered outside the Israeli consulate building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign.

The Orthodox Female Spiritual Leader Working with Converts

Sapir is the only woman in Israel to have successfully completed the five-year course.

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

The Bagel Report: An American Pickle? Sounds Crazy, No?

Erin and Esther dive right into the barrel and pickle their minds in the majestic, artisanal brine that is Seth Rogen's "An American Pickle,"...

Shlomo Fischer: The Jerusalem Protests

Shlomo Fischer and Shmuel Rosner discuss the almost daily protests aking place in Jerusalem. Who are the protesters? Why are they protesting? And how...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x