Day in the life: reading Rambam on a Sunday morning
Casting my vote

Speaking from our soft places (Radical Torah repost)

It's come to my attention that Radical Torah [link no longer functions] has been down for some weeks. I haven't been able to figure out what happened, or whether the wonderful archive of material hosted there will ever return... but for now, I thought I'd repost here the parsha commentaries I wrote for RT, so they're archived online in persistent, findable form. This week I'll repost my commentaries on the first few portions in the Torah, and from here on out I'll try to repost my RT commentary each week as we come to the portion in question. I'll update the links on my divrei Torah index, too. With no further ado: here's what I wrote about the first portion of the Torah in 2006.

At the end of Genesis chapter 4, after the story of Cain and Hevel has played itself out to its painful conclusion, we read about the generations that followed. Meanwhile, the text tells us, Adam knew his wife again, and she bore Seth, who begot Enosh. "It was then," the text tells us, "that men began to invoke the Lord by name." Most commentators interpret this as a reference to the beginnings of prayer.

The sons of Adam made offerings to God -- and we know well the consequences of those different offerings and their different receptions -- but not until the days of Adam and Chava's grandson Enosh did humanity began to pray. Everett Fox translates the name "Enosh" as "Mortal;" it's also possible to relate the name to words meaning "soft," "weak," "delicate." Perhaps the text means to subtly remind us that our first impulse toward prayer arises out of our weakness, our mortality, the places where we are soft.

The timing of humanity's first prayer adds a layer of horror to the story of Hevel and Cain. Having perpetrated the first murder in human consciousness, Cain must have found himself entirely unable to pray for solace or for forgiveness. His heart may have cried out, but he didn't know how to give the cries form. Of course, Torah tells us he spoke directly with God, both before and after killing his brother. That's a form of connection that's not open to us today, at least not in my experience. But conversation is not precisely prayer. Cain may have talked with God, but he didn't know how to pray.

It makes a certain kind of sense that there's a gap between Cain's misdeed and humanity developing the ability to pray. The act of that first murder must have afflicted not only Cain, but all of the nascent human family. The survivors, and those who came immediately after, might have suffered from something like what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. Two generations needed to pass after the familial rupture before prayer could become a thinkable, and enactable, reality.

There's wisdom in that which resonates in today's world. After a trauma -- a death, a loss, a confrontation with violence or tragedy -- we may find ourselves incapable of making the emotional and spiritual leap of reaching out toward God in prayer. But Torah shows us that this paralysis isn't permanent; we too are descendents of Adam, and prayer is open to us, as it was to the men of Enosh's generation.

In today's lexicon we have a variety of words which mean prayer, each with its own connotations and implications. There's tefilah, which has at its root the notion of self-discernment; avodah, which hints at service; davenen, which some link (via Yiddish) to the Latinate term "divine." Which of these did our progenitors engage in, or offer, or do? We can't know; all the Torah tells us is that humanity began to call on the name of God. And maybe that's exactly what those first prayers were. Even now, simply speaking a name of God is a form of prayer. We call on God in gratitude, and in anguish; in moments of strong emotion, in need, and in joy.

Torah tells us also -- implicitly -- that our ability to pray is intimately connected with our fragility. The consciousness of our mortality is interwoven with awareness of our dependence on God, the Source of all life, Who speaks us into being and to Whom we ultimately return, whatever that may mean. However independent we may feel or seem, at some deep level we rely on a Source beyond ourselves. And we pray out of an awareness, however inchoate, of that reliance.

That prayer takes a variety of forms. No matter when or where you read this, at this moment in the hospital nearest you someone is offering fervent prayer. Someone is beseeching God for an outcome they desperately want and need. Someone is saying thank you. Someone is storming out of the glass emergency room doors to curse whatever they think God might be. Someone is praying for the ability to accept frailty. Someone is weeping in prayerful relief. Someone may be doing all of these things at once.

Prayer that arises out of immediate need can feel different, qualitatively, than regular or daily prayer. One of the values of a daily prayer practice is that it creates and maintains a sense of conversation with the Eternal. If I'm in the practice of praying regularly, then when something unexpected arises, I don't have to fumble for an opening or struggle to reach out, because God and I are always already on speaking terms. Those in Enosh's generation didn't have that luxury; for them, prayer must have been agonizing, even frightening. But I'll bet it offered an intense kind of relief, too.

Whether our prayers are rooted in gratitude or in fear, in exultation or in sorrow, they arise out of our impermanence...and ascend toward the One Who transcends all impermanence, fragility, and change. Every time we pray, we walk in the footsteps of our earliest ancestors, the contemporaries of mortal Enosh, who first learned to call upon God's name.

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