Weekly Jewish Wisdom
by Dr. Erica Brown
"Conversation is a form of prayer."
Talmud Brakhot 26b
What are the ingredients for a satisfying conversation? We hopefully like the person with whom we are speaking; we feel understood. We feel our own capacity to listen expand and take in the totality of another. We make eye contact and are not afraid to make ourselves vulnerable when appropriate. We feel connected to both the person and the content. We may even feel a moment of transcendence.
The Talmud turns to early patriarchs of Genesis as models of prayer. Isaac is singled out and associated with the afternoon prayer because we find him in Genesis 24:63 meditating in the late afternoon, as it were, in the middle of a field: "Isaac went out to speak in the field toward evening." Who was Isaac speaking to? We have no idea, but it is this scene that sets the stage for his initial meeting with Rebecca. His soon-to-be wife sees a man alone, wrapped up in language, and falls off her camel. It's a very graceful move in front of your betrothed who has yet to make your acquaintance!
The Sages explore what exactly Isaac was doing there and why it would induce such a dramatic response. Their conclusion? Isaac was praying. Another translation of the above expression is "Speech (in this verse) is nothing other than prayer." Isaac was talking to God, and his conversation was so compelling and enrapturing that Rebecca had never seen anything like it before. The man she was about to marry showed such spiritual depth that it shook her off balance, quite literally.
Perhaps Rebecca understood at this first impression of her life partner that a man who can speak to God with such absorption would be able to converse with her with the same degree of intensity and focus. She gets back on her camel and veils herself, a sign, perhaps that she knew that she had intruded in some way on her future husband's prayer space.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Future Tense, supports the above translation, namely that "conversation is a form of prayer." He explains his word choice as follows, "...in conversation I reach out to the human other, just as in prayer I reach out to the Divine Other." He sees prayer as a parallel act to a meaningful conversation. It should evoke the satisfaction we described earlier.
The Jewish thinker Morris Joseph once said (although it has been attributed to others as well) "There is a vast difference between saying prayers and praying." We can open a book and scratch our way through the Hebrew or the English translation and parrot the actions going on in a synagogue, but we will not truly be praying. We are saying prayers, reciting words but not feeling attached to them in any way.
Real prayer, on the other hand, requires the same ingredients as a good conversation: a desire to connect, to feel understood, to take in the Other, to listen, to take pleasure in the company. It can't all be scripted for us. Moshe Greenberg, the famous Bible scholar, in his book on prayer, cites the ancient Delilah who toyed with Samson's' affections: "How can you say 'I love you' when your heart is not with me?" (Judges 16:15). In prayer we praise God continuously but how often are our hearts truly with God when we say the words? We imagine God turning to us the way Delilah turns to Samson: "How can you say 'I love you' when your heart is not with me?"
The Talmud, in stating that conversation is a form of prayer, presents us with a dual challenge. We need to make sure that our prayers take on the sincerity, openness and desire to connect that we have in conversation. But the Talmud also challenges us to find the sacred in human interchange and to create transcendent, almost prayer-like moments when we speak with other people. We have the capacity to bring human passion to our relationship with God and to bring God into the conversation we have with others by speaking sincerely and lovingly, one soul to another.
March 4, 2011; 5:15 PM ET
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