ABOUT a third of the Babylonian Talmud is story—or “incidents” in the Talmud’s unpretentious phrasing—and the death of Rav Eliezer on folio 28B of the tractate Berachos is one of the work’s many formula incidents: familiar blossoms that brighten even the most severe juridical terrain. The narrative convention in this instance is this: a teacher is dying, and his students get to ask him one question before the curtain falls.
Rav Eliezer was no common teacher. Likely born early in the second half of the first century, he became one of the men who devised rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., and without whom Israel and its jealous god would long since have joined Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and their jealous gods in the purgatory of museum blockbuster shows. And the men who stood by Eliezer’s deathbed were clearly worthy of their master. For notwithstanding his condition, they ran one right up under his chin. “Teach us,” they said, “the ways of this life so that we may be worthy of life in the World To Come”—which is to say they asked him how to gain eternal life. And Eliezer joined his final breaths to brace a suitably comprehensive answer: “Care for the honor of your colleagues; teach your children to shun rote memorization, and seat them on the knees of those who have studied with the sages. And when you pray,” he concluded, “da lifne me ata omdim”—know before Whom you stand.
While it may seem uncharitable to criticize a dying man for not rounding on a tough pitch, respect for the Talmud’s own relentless standards of discourse requires us to observe that Rav Eliezer’s statement is a wobbly double down the line—prolix and not absolutely coherent (scholars still argue about the translation and import of the phrase here rendered as “rote memorization”). And as any moderately experienced student of Talmud would know, Rav Eliezer’s final teaching does seem but a pallid echo of the bracing assertion found in the tractate Avoth that the world exists for the sake of three things and three things only: charity, study of Torah, and prayer.
Eliezer’s last sentence taken alone, however—his declaration regarding prayer—is another matter, a blast so pure, long and true that it has withstood the caviling of eighteen centuries’ worth of rabbinic color commentators and stands today as the definition of a definition of Jewish prayer, linked to the subject the way “All Gaul is divided into three parts” is linked to Latin, or as Atlanta used to be linked to air travel in the South back when Delta was king of the regulated skies: “You can go to heaven or hell, but you gotta go through Atlanta,” they said. Likewise, you can go anywhere you like in the consideration of Jewish prayer, but first you need to make your way through “Know before Whom you stand.”
Know: prayer is neither delirium nor reflex; it calls for an attentive intellect, what the rabbis called kavannah—intentionality. There is no accidental prayer.
Know before Whom: Whom, not what. Prayer is personal. The God of the Habiru is not an abstraction, is not nature, fate or time decked out in a white beard. “An ‘I’ does not pray to an ‘It,’” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in a twentieth-century color commentary on Eliezer’s final words.
Know before Whom you stand. Prayer does not take you into your self or out of our world. It is not a transcendental meditation. The relaxation response is not its goal. Nor is prayer oratory. Rather, prayer places you in proximal, eyes-front relationship with the Creator. And so the Hebrew word for liturgical prayer is tefilah, an invocation of God as judge.
But the Talmud is merely the glorious Talmud. It is not Judaism; it is not the lives of men and women, lived in the valleys and on the flats—holy ground that is nonetheless ground.
One day about sixteen hundred or so years after Rav Eliezer did his best to answer the last question he ever heard, a Russian Chassidic rabbi known as Shneur Zalman of Ladi was praying alongside his son and, turning to the boy, asked what bit of scripture he was using to focus his prayers. The child answered that he was meditating on the phrase “Whatsoever is lofty shall bow down before Thee.” Then he asked his father the same question: “With what are you praying?” The rabbi answered, “With the floor and with the bench.”
In Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1950s, I learned to pray as most of us learn to pray: with the floor and with the bench, or in my case with the sheet linoleum and the gunmetal folding chairs in the Young Israel Synagogue of New Lots and East New York, a brick shoebox with painted-glass casement windows that stood at the corner of Hegeman Street and Sheffield Avenue, shouldered by a dry cleaner’s and by a long row of squat apartment buildings that we called brownstones when brownstone was not yet an evocation of a lost urban Elysium but simply a word that described a stone so modest and common that it had no real name.
The Young Israel of New Lots and East New York was a devoutly Orthodox congregation, and the world it supported was suffused with prayer: morning, afternoon and evening worship; blessings before drinking Coke or eating cookies (and they were not the same blessing); blessings after each meal and when putting on new clothes and after burying the dead. There were prayers to be said prior to an airplane flight, prayers of thanksgiving to be said upon landing safely, and dense kabbalic prayers on newsprint certificates that had to be taped to the headboards of cribs to ward off the demons and imps who joyed at murdering infants in their sleep.
We recited prayers as we climbed into bed and prayers as we groped for the off switch on the alarm clock; prayers when catching sight of a Jewish sage or a gentile sage (as with Coke and cookies, different blessings). There was even an extraordinary requirement to offer a prayer of thanks for bad fortune as for good. And each Friday evening at the Sabbath eve meal in every house I knew, fathers placed hands upon the bowed heads of their children, and prayed aloud in Hebrew: “The Lord bless you and guard you. The Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace”—a prayer and a gesture of benediction torn dripping from the pages of the Torah, as old as love and fear.
We families who were attached to the Young Israel of New Lots and East New York lived in a whirlwind of invocation, praise, thanks, blessing, petition, song and Psalm. But we also lived in rows of attached houses in a clotted and crowded place, a place where the Rav Eliezer’s injunction to “know before Whom you stand” in prayer had to compete for attention with the injunction of the baby’s croup, the injunction of the worn clutch on the DeSoto, the injunction of the willful teenager, the injunction of the twenty sales you needed to make before dusk if you were to earn the commission you were already sorry you’d taken in advance. And so, while prayer was frequent, it was frequently words—words spoken with an eye on the clock, with an ear attuned to the telephone or the cough from the upstairs bedroom or the spear point of anxiety lodged in the heart.
And I was a boy educated to be pious and learned. I knew very early Rav Eliezer’s instructions for gaining The World To Come. I knew Maimonides’ extraordinary ruling a millennium later that a man who has returned from a journey may abstain from worship for as long as three days, until he regains the degree of concentration that prayer requires. I knew the story of the Chassidic master Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev, who refused to enter a certain synagogue, saying there was no room for him in the building, so cluttered was it with words spoken without love or fear that had not risen to the Upper World but lay strewn in heaps on the floor like common trash.
And I, knowing these things, knowing what God expected of us, how could I make sense of the mumbled words, the tossed-off readings, the careless petitions, the hurried mumblings that so often passed for prayer and worship in the Young Israel of New Lots and East New York and on the streets and in the houses nearby? How could I reconcile God’s demands and the demands of Brooklyn? Was it possible that The World To Come was a domain set up only for saints or those who lived in Manhattan between 57th and 96th—people who had nothing to worry about and so could pray with proper kavannah? Was it possible that just about everyone I knew and even loved would never make it into God’s eternal care?
And then I read the story of the Rebbe’s dream. This happened when I was eleven or twelve years old, on a Sabbath afternoon in the Young Israel shul, in the parched hiatus between the late-afternoon service and the evening service that concluded the Sabbath. Bored, waiting for the Sabbath to bleed away into the week so I could again listen to the radio or spend my allowance, I picked up a children’s magazine that was lying on a folding chair in the sanctuary.
I don’t remember what the magazine was called, but I remember it as the Orthodox Jewish analog to My Weekly Reader. Distributed to students in yeshiva elementary schools, it offered stories from scripture and Talmud, Torah puzzlers, photos of grinning boys in black yarmulkes who had memorized 100 or 500 mishnaim, and profiles of heroes from Abraham to Hank Greenberg. And the back cover was always a cartoon story, and that’s where I turned first and where I found “The Rebbe’s Dream.” And here it is as I remember it.
Once in a village in eastern Europe, there lived a rebbe known for the quality of his prayer. From every side people would come to hear, to be inspired, to watch this man climb the ladder of prayer from kavannah—intentionality—to d’vekut—the loving consciousness of God—to hitpashtut ha-gashmiyut, the highest rung of prayer, when the soul falls away from the body and enters the Upper World and God’s immediate presence.
And one night the rebbe had a dream. In the dream an angel came to him and said, “If you would learn to pray properly, you must go study with Rav Naftali of Berzhitz.” The rebbe was a pious and humble man, and so the very next morning he set out for Berzhitz, which turned out to be an isolated hamlet in the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Galicia. After a week of travel he found himself in the village synagogue, and there he waited until the local Jews assembled for evening prayer, and he asked who among them was Rav Naftali. They replied that there was no Rav Naftali in the village. He said that he’d been told on good authority that there was a Rav Naftali in Berzhitz and had in fact traveled a long way to speak with him. “Distinguished sage,” one man then said, “someone’s played a cruel joke on you for which God will surely take revenge. There is no Rav Naftali here, and the only Naftali at all is Naftali the woodsman who lives up in the hills and is no rav for certain but a proste Yid”—a coarse Jew—“not the kind you would care to know.” And all the other men nodded.
The rebbe was deeply disappointed, and decided to leave Berzhitz the next morning. But that night, asleep on a bench in the synagogue, he again dreamed that the angel came and said, “If you would learn to pray properly, you must go study with Rav Naftali of Berzhitz.” When the rebbe awoke he decided that before he went home he would go to see this Naftali the woodsman. Perhaps the other villagers were mistaken about the man, he thought. Perhaps he was in fact a lamed-vovnik, one of the thirty-six hidden saints whose identity is known only to God, and for whose sake alone the world is each moment spared the destruction it deserves.
And so he walked most of the morning on a rutted road through the forest until he came to a clearing where there stood a log-walled cabin and a horse shed. And he knocked on the door and a woman admitted him. “I’m a traveler seeking a place to rest,” the rebbe said. The day happened to be a Friday, and so the woman invited him to stay for the holy Sabbath, and the rebbe sat in a corner of the house and studied from a book of Torah he’d brought with him.
Shortly before sunset, the rebbe heard the sound of a horse and wagon. A few minutes later a short, big-bellied man with a dark tangled beard entered. He stood an ax in a corner of the room, washed his hands and face in a bucket of water and immediately began to mumble the prayers of greeting for the Sabbath. The rebbe was not impressed with the looks of his host or with his hurried prayers, but he joined him in worship, and then the two men sat down at the table to eat the Sabbath eve meal.
Together they said the blessing over the wine, and the rebbe took a few sips from his cup while Naftali drained his cup and immediately filled it again. Then came the blessing over bread. The rebbe ate a slice of challah, and Naftali ate half a loaf. Then Naftali’s wife brought out a baked carp and served the rebbe a slice. Naftali ate the rest of the fish to the bones. The woman brought a pot of chicken soup to the table, then a dish of boiled chicken and turnips, then a fruit compote of apples and berries. Naftali ate prodigiously of each course, all the while drinking glasses of wine and hot tea.
And then, after he had quickly recited the blessing after meals, Naftali stood up, wished his guest a good night and went off to sleep. In a minute the small cabin echoed with the sound of his snoring.
The next day, at the Sabbath dinner and then later at the third Sabbath meal, Naftali’s wife brought heaps of food to the table, and Naftali ate like a dozen men, devouring every heap that was placed before him.
Saturday night arrived, and the rebbe was ready to leave, to go home, convinced he had misunderstood his dream. And so he said farewell to his hosts and thanked them for their hospitality. “Learned rabbi,” Naftali then said, “so you don’t go away thinking the worst of me, allow me to tell you a story. All my life I’ve had a great appetite for food, and that has been a blessing, giving me the strength to earn my living. And then one day a few years ago, I was alone in the forest when bandits attacked me. They were going to take my wagon and tools and kill me. And so I prayed to our Creator, saying, ‘I have no learning, I have no pious habits—all I have is an appetite. But if You give me the strength I need today, for the rest of my life when I eat on Your holy Sabbath, I will eat for You, only for You.’”
The rebbe returned to his own village. He lived many more years. And when people told him how impressive and uplifting his prayers were, he was sometimes heard to reply, “Whatever I know about prayer is as dust compared to the knowledge of my master, Rav Naftali of Berzhitz.”
That is the story of the rebbe’s dream that I read many years ago in cartoon form in the dull hour between minchah and maariv in the Young Israel of New Lots and East New York. And when I had finished reading, I knew that what I had read was as true as Rav Eliezer’s deathbed instructions, or Maimonides’ ruling, or Levi Yitzchok’s judgment. I knew I had read a story that could change your life if you weren’t careful, or maybe if you were careful.
My guess is that if Rav Eliezer had been hanging around the Young Israel Synagogue of New Lots and East New York that afternoon, reading over my shoulder, he would probably have reached a similar conclusion about the power of the story of the rebbe’s dream, and been none too happy about it.
A member of the most unfortunate generation of Abraham’s seed prior to 1939, Eliezer grew up at the edge of a chasm that split history. On the far side, the centuries-old order of ritual animal sacrifice by a caste of priests in a Temple on a particular hill in a particular kingdom in a particular land promised through God’s covenant to the people of Israel. On the near side, silence and devastation. “From the day the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron set itself between Israel and her father in heaven,” Rav Elazar ben Pedat declared in one of the most frightening sentences in the Talmud.
Attempts to jump the chasm (or break through ben Pedat’s iron wall) were plentiful, dramatic, desperate and, in nearly all instances, doomed: a series of schisms, asceticisms, revolutions and bloody martyrdoms. And in the midst of these convulsions came the response formed by Rav Eliezer and his colleagues (along with Christianity the only response to the Temple’s destruction that has prevailed into our time). It was a response that through Mishnah and Talmud, through custom and law, rebuilt the faith of Judah on this side of the chasm as rabbinic Judaism: a faith made for a people in literal and figurative exile, “a pilgrim tribe,” in the words of George Steiner, “housed not in place but in time,” and worshiping a God also in exile, whose place was nowhere and everywhere, whose face was invisible and always manifest.
And the core of that rabbinic inspiration was the substitution of word for blood, of poetry for the knife, of The Young Israel Synagogue of New Lots and East New York for Jerusalem—of orderly, communal, regularized prayer for orderly, communal, regularized animal sacrifice. And so, these rabbis declared, just as sacrifice in the Temple had brought forgiveness of sin, so now did prayer. Just as sacrifice in the Temple had been a principal obligation on religious festivals, so now was prayer. As sacrifice had been the means by which one expressed gratitude for a harvest, for a child, for escape from danger, so now was prayer.
Berachos, the tractate of Talmud most concerned with prayer, not only contains hundreds of detailed instructions for liturgy and worship, but is replete with signposts that direct people’s attention to the Torah-endorsed link between the lost world of temple and the new world of synagogue. Rav Hiyya bar Abba, for example, speaking on folio 14B-15A in the name of his teacher Rav Yochanan, describes how a man should begin his day: “Scripture,” he declares, “considers all who relieve themselves, wash their hands, put on phylacteries and recite the keryat shema and pray to be like those who build an altar and sacrifice upon it.” Thus did Rav Eliezer and his fellow rabbis try to connect present and past.
But even the noblest bridge admits the chasm. With all due respect to Rav Yochanan, the Temple priest’s ablutions are not Everyman’s morning piss. In her erudite history of rabbinic prayer, To Worship God Properly, Rabbi Ruth Langer nails the radical implications of Rav Eliezer and company’s invention this way: “When prayer became incumbent on all the people, not simply upon the priests in Jerusalem, then all the people became equally responsible for contact with God.”
That’s not a bridge; it’s a new explosion. And like other theological explosions—the Reformation, for one good example—it could well have resulted in a shattered core and a score of diminished and localized shards, some perhaps dedicated to gluttony, or sexual ritual, or dismaying forms of sacrifice as the way to please or placate God.
Da lifne me ata omdim: “And when you pray, know before Whom you stand.” If one listens with a particular kind of care, Rav Eliezer’s final words can sound like a desperate cry for order.
By coincidence (a condition that, like tragedy, is ineluctably joined to Jewish history), Chassidism, the eighteenth-century revivalist movement that produced the story of the rebbe’s dream, was also a theological explosion, another response to yet another discontinuity in Jewish history. The crack first appeared in 1648, when an unprecedentedly murderous pogrom destroyed 300 Jewish settlements in Poland and the Ukraine. As in the first century, the unimagined tragedy led to millennial hysteria and a brace of messianic pretenders, two of whom failed dismally, publicly, and shamefully, in the aftermath of which an exhausted Judaism fell into a clinical depression, a stupor of sadness, anxiety, guilt, and obsessive regard for religious regulation.
Led by a set of charismatic rural religious leaders—not all of whom were rabbis—Chassidism took root in the backwater villages of western Galicia. Theologically, it placed heart above mind, man above text, loving-kindness above learning—seeking to reconnect Judaism with a God who had placed His people on earth so they might rejoice in His blessings.
As regards prayer in particular, Chassidism became infamous for flouting rabbinic regulations: for praying too late and too early; for praying too loud and too fondly; for dancing and singing in the midst of liturgy; for concluding the morning prayer with a whiskey toast to the day’s remembered martyrs. It was said of Rav Chayim of Tzanz, for example, that he would stand for hours in prayer—not speaking the liturgy, but ecstatically repeating: “I mean nothing but You, nothing but You alone; nothing but You, nothing but You alone.”
And there was Rav Moshe of Kobrin, who in reciting the preamble to just about every Jewish blessing—“Blessed art thou, Lord our God”—cried out “blessed” with such fervor that he had to sit and rest before he could continue with “art thou”; and the Koznitzer Maggid, who would dance on a table during worship; and the dark-visioned Kotzker Rebbe who once chastised a man who complained that his heart ached when work kept him from praying at the prescribed hour: “How do you know that God doesn’t prefer your heartache to your prayers?”
How, indeed, does one know what God prefers? Once when I was a boy in the Young Israel Synagogue of New Lots and East New York, late on a Sabbath morning, the men were preparing to return the Torah scroll to the ark after the reading so we could finish the service and go home to eat the Sabbath dinner. A man came forward from his seat and picked up the Torah from the reading table and would not let it go, would not let the service continue. A short, balding man in a navy blue suit, he put his arms around the Torah and his cheek against its silk covering, as one would hug a child in need of comforting. All activity stopped. The white cotton curtains that closed off the women’s section of the shul parted, and the women and girls stared. Several men—leaders of the shul—went up to the man who had seized the Torah. They whispered to him and he whispered in reply without raising his eyes to look at them. From where I stood I could see sweat on the man’s high pale brow. And then the word passed from row to row and chair to chair: the man who held the Torah had that week been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nothing could be done. But he knew, as we did, that no harm could come to a person who held the Torah. Of course he knew, as did we, of the thousands of martyrs over the years who were killed while embracing the Torah, even, in some cases, while in the Torah’s embrace, wrapped in the scroll by the murderers. But that was a mystery and old news. In the Young Israel of New Lots and East New York, Torah was life and this was today. And so the man held the Torah and would not let it go.
No one would take the sacred scroll from him under these circumstances, and besides it was unseemly to wrestle over a Torah. And if it fell to the ground, a general fast would be required.
I don’t remember how the episode ended, but I remember it did not last long. I imagine he grew tired: a Torah scroll—roll upon roll of parchment, line upon line of God’s word—is heavy in several ways.
At the time, I saw what this man did as an extraordinary act of prayer and supplication—the most extraordinary I’d ever seen. But was it prayer, or was it the reverse of prayer, an act of irreverence, of selfishness?
From the perspective of those who must build and maintain the stage on which prayers of every sort can play themselves out, the question is not easily answered. As Rav Eliezer knew, and as the rabbis who denounced Chassidism and in some cases excommunicated its leaders knew, if each member of the congregation dances on the table, if each roars the first words of the liturgy and falls to the floor, or kidnaps the sacred scroll, or decides that heartache or a quart of pickled herring with onions will do as a substitute, it won’t be long before prayer faces man and not God, before the stage collapses under the weight of self-indulgence. On the other hand, if there can be no daring or originality or creativity in prayer, then no human being will mount that stage except out of a sense of duty—and certainly no imaginative human being will want to see what happens there, which means that prayer and religious observance will attract none but the reverential—which is a very different crowd from the reverent.
I happen to be of that generation of Abraham’s seed whose members carry the names of those who died in the Shoah. Binyahmin Rand was my murdered great-grandfather. Likewise, my brother Akiva is named for Binyahmin’s son. But Jewish history being the aforementioned tangle of coincidence and tragedy, Akiva also happens to be the name of Rav Eliezer’s most eminent student, who, as it happens, is also known for the words he spoke in answer to his own students’ final question.
In this case, the teacher was being flayed alive by the Romans, his flesh torn from the bone with metal combs. The students question: How can you stand in silence while undergoing this torture? And like Eliezer, Akiva replied well enough that his words are remembered. “All my life,” he said. “I’ve wondered how I would be able to fulfill the commandment of loving God with all my heart and soul and life.” Great-Uncle Akiva’s end was not so efficacious. After witnessing the first murderous assault on his village’s Jews, Akiva survived the war as a partisan, went to the new state of Israel as a refugee, married, fathered two children, and one day sat in a warm bath and cut open his wrists.
My brother Akiva was born only thirteen months after I came into the world, and as I was from the go raised to be learned and pious, he took the other available option and raised himself to be a lout—quick-tempered, quick-fisted, stubborn, angry, and unlearned. And then, when I was nineteen and he was eighteen, we changed places—or more accurately, I determined to become a lout, which allowed him to become learned and pious.
Thirty years or so later, Akiva is the dean of a yeshiva in Yiddish Jerusalem, has thirteen children and a dozen grandchildren, and wears a long black beard and a black hat. I am an editor and writer at an American Jesuit university, have three children, no grandchildren, no beard, and own no hat that Akiva would consider worthy of a grown man’s head.
For nearly two decades, Akiva and I had almost no contact, but now we meet every year or two when business brings him to the States, and we talk gingerly about the remaining things we have in common: family and Torah.
When Akiva visited Boston two years ago, I had begun to think about prayer and reverence, and so, over a breakfast of lox and eggs at a kosher deli, I asked how he understood Samuel II, chapters five and six, a text obsessed with reverence before God.
It’s the story of David, newly made king, and how he goes with his army to bring the ark of the covenant to his new capital of Jerusalem. Relinquished by the Philistines after it caused them plague, the ark had since been stored in the home of Avinadav. And with the help of Uzuh and Achyo, two sons of Avinadav, David begins carting it home. (The English translation I use is from Judaica Press, tin-eared but simply accurate.) “And they came to Goren-Nachon, and Uzuh put forth [his hand] to the ark of God, and grasped hold of it, for the oxen swayed it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzuh, and God struck him down there” because only a Temple priest may touch his flesh to the ark.
Angry at God and fearful, David abandons the ark on the spot, returning to claim it three months later only after hearing that the man (a Gittite, no less) who had taken the ark into his house had since been blessed by God. And so David the brilliant opportunist brings the ark to Jerusalem “with joy.... And David danced with all his might before the Lord; and David was girded with a linen ephod”—which is to say, a short shift, which is to say that in the course of dancing with all his might before the Lord and all the people who lived in his city, the king of Israel exposed himself.
And Michal, David’s first and much neglected wife and daughter of his old rival Saul, looks out at the procession and sees “the king David hopping and dancing before the Lord; and she loathed him in her heart.” Later, after appropriate pomp and sacrifice, David heads home, where Michal greets him with: “How honored was today the king of Israel, who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as would expose himself one of the idlers.” This seems fair and sharp instruction from a born princess to her husband the randy former shepherd, but it is also an act against God’s anointed, as David scornfully makes plain. “And David said unto Michal, ‘Before the Lord who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me prince over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore I have made merry before the Lord. . . .’ And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.” End of chapter and verse.
What makes the text difficult, I told Akiva, is that here we have Uzuh, who lays a hand on the ark so as to keep it from falling to the ground—he gets zapped for all his good intentions. We have Michal, the princess and queen, for pointing out correctly to her husband that leaping up and down in a short ephod in a public place was behavior ill-suited to royalty—she is cursed with barrenness. And then we have David, who for exposing himself before the ark and before all the people—no consequences.
The centuries have of course left us with plenty of rabbinic exegesis, most of it over-heated. Some commentators, for example, have tried to sacramentalize David’s behavior by saying that his ephod was not really a common ephod but the jeweled ephod worn by the Temple priest. Others have tried to explain God’s extraordinary anger against the well-meaning if dim-witted Uzuh by developing a midrash that discovers four serious sins in Uzuh’s one act of touching the ark. The inventive details do not bear repeating. Regarding Michal, another midrash says that she wasn’t really cursed but had angered David sufficiently that he never again went to bed with her. But Akiva didn’t try to pass off any of this on me. Instead he offered the following.
It’s easy, Akiva said (the words he has always used when explaining something he understands and I don’t). Uzuh, he said, was struck down not simply because he reached out to steady the ark, but because he did so simply to steady the ark, like a clerk filing a folder, like a librarian shelving a book—without awe or love. And Michal was punished not because she chastised the king, but because she did so “loath[ing] him in her heart” and not out of concern for God or the kingdom or the people. And as for David, he was forgiven because what he did—while inappropriate, demeaning, embarrassing, and certainly unsuited to royalty—he did “with all his might before God,” which is to say, with selfless devotion. That’s what Akiva told me.
And so, while eating lox and eggs, did my learned brother elucidate the difficult text and, though he didn’t know it, at the same time provide an answer to the question of how Rav Eliezer and Naftali the woodsman and King David and the men and women of The Young Israel of New Lots and East New York might all be worthy of eternal life. “With all your might before God” will do it every time—will make a prayer of eating, of dancing, of singing, of kidnapping the Torah, even of an offering of mumbled words.
And here I could stop, standing foursquare on the Torah and my learned brother’s midrash. Unlike my brother, however, I’m a modern. I can’t feel comfortable except if I rest on vexatious ambiguity, the rough mattress I’m used to. And so a final story that returns me to the Young Israel of New Lots and East New York—the place where I received the chilling intimation, while reading the story of the rebbe’s dream, that law and midrash were insufficient, that creation was in final analysis too spirited or opaque or enigmatic or obdurate to submit itself to any study except that conducted by a blind heart.
The story is about prayer and the Chassidic tradition of drinking a post-worship l’Chayim each morning in memory of the day’s listed martyrs. But more importantly, it is about the handful of men who made up the Young Israel’s first minyan of the day, who prayed earliest and fastest and got on with it, and who blessed me for a time by taking me into their odd company, allowing a milky-skinned boy of thirteen to be counted as a man each dawn at the sacred corner of Hegeman and Sheffield.
Tradesmen and shopkeepers, widowers who smelled of the camphor chips in their dresser drawers, men who were too angry or restless to lie next to their wives all night, they rose before dawn and made their way through the darkness to the corner of Hegeman and Sheffield, where they stood beside their gunmetal chairs below the Eternal Fluorescent buzzing behind its shield of painted glass, before the ark decorated with an emblem of guardian angels yawning like they’d been up all night arguing. And the moment the clock showed sunrise and they could count ten men, they began.
Never since have I heard such fast prayers, like a torrent sweeping the gutters, slaking the wilderness at the corner of Sheffield and Hegeman, the umens leaping like startled trout. Maybe it was twenty minutes to the finish—thirty on Monday and Thursday when we had to read Torah—and then we rushed to the long table below the bookshelves at the back of the sanctuary.
And one of the men took the Seagram’s from the secret ark behind Maimon’s commentary on the Mishnah, while another brought a tray of shot glasses, heavy as bad news, from the caterer’s kitchen, and together we took into our bellies the first golden happiness of the day, crying out a “L’Chayim”—To life!—in memory of some saint we did not know but whose death on this date was somewhere recorded, we believed. “For,” as I wrote in a poem published a few years ago:
...the world was old
and men died each hour,
some of them saints or martyrs,
while someone else, whose job it was,
wrote names and dates
(and what fuel was used to start the job,
and the final words, if intelligible).
And if we didn’t have the details
at Hegeman and Sheffield,
that couldn’t be our fault
that we should have to suffer.
So L’Chayim and again L’Chayim.
The hoax of International Brotherhood. L’Chayim.
The stink in the air shaft. L’Chayim.
The boxcar of broken shoes. L’Chayim.
The traitor baseball team. L’Chayim.
The martyr behind the deli counter. L’Chayim.
The bone in the sea-root’s grasp. L’Chayim.
The silent wife at the Sabbath meal. L’Chayim.
The girl in a summer dress
who passes as you sit in the steamy elevated car
and makes you remember what you once believed, L’Chayim.
And then each man went off to business or breakfast except for old Mr. Auslander, who stayed to wash the shot glasses and hum “Bali Hai” at the hallway sink generally reserved for the priests’ Holy Day ablutions. While I, damp-eyed, happy apprentice to the saints, who had to be in eighth grade and cold sober in an hour, hurried home in the new light among gentile dog walkers, beneath muscled sycamores, in the perfume trail of girls from public high school, home to the dark-eyed mother in a frayed robe, home to the dying sun of butter in the galaxy of the oatmeal bowl.
Visit Ben Birnbaum as Image Artist of the Month for February '02