“Asher natan l’sechvi bina l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylaw……” Who grants the rooster the faculty to distinguish between light and darkness… I try to say these first lines of the daily prayers from the floor to which I’d just fallen. Balatot, standard Israeli floor tiles are hard rock. My tefillin went flying again and I search around me to see if they landed safely or will need yet another trip to Mea Shearim (the ultra-orthodox center of Jerusalem) for yet another expensive repair.
I try to stand, even though a previous fall a couple nights ago badly sprained my ankle….
I have my tefillin back on–this time I must have had the wits to cushion the box with my arms. I’m about to let go of my tzitzit, the eight-string fringe on each of the four corners of my tallit, prayer shawl… The world starts to slide again to my left fifteen minutes later as I shout the words, “Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheinu Adonay Echad), hoping to resist darkness and gravity pulling me once again to the floor.
This time I succeed to remain upright and push forward with the last of my strength to the Amida, the central eighteen-prayer focus of our thrice-daily prayers. Still in a haze, I wonder what tomorrow will bring my way.
I don’t have a lot of patience with attempts to “sell” tefilla (prayer) and mitzvot, (fulfilling commandments) as being psychologically uplifting, energizing or otherwise as primarily designed to benefit me. Rather, I try to see them as the Talmud does in so many places as an obligation I have to God. While my experiences over the years are overwhelmingly positive and I do often enjoy a “spiritual boost”, that fact really detracts and distracts from my actual goal, to “do my job”. Tefilla is an opportunity to take myself out of the spotlight and rather, let it illuminate God. In other words, I pray as part of my commitment to fulfill my thrice-daily obligation, as designed by our sages to optimize the world for its eventual repair and redemption. A little step every day….
Fulfilling a long-held dream to return to Israel, I finally settled in Jerusalem a few months ago. You’d think I’d be so energized I’d daven like James Brown, chanting, spinning, dancing and jumping and howling. Sorry, that’s never been my style and I don’t expect it will ever, but right now all I’m asking is to sit quietly, read the words printed on the page, get to the end of the service in one piece. These teffilot don’t have to get me high, nor make me feel like God’s Best Buddy; they won’t assure me that I’ve done my part to “bring the Moshiach”.
But what I hope to feel is that I met my obligation, that I paid my debt, that I did my part.
When even that suddenly became such a desperate challenge, I began to realize just how important it really is.
Until a couple weeks ago I spent the last four months in a medical nightmare roller-coaster. Switching daily medicines from what was available in the US to what’s sold here in Israel, there was a total breakdown in the system. I was suddenly taking a type of insulin that rather than protect my circulation almost killed me. Totally disoriented, I’d find myself sleepwalking every night–this in an apartment I had just moved into. All too often, I’d fall on the hard floor (and even harder furniture and appliances). One night I slammed into a wall mirror which shattered and just barely missed slashing me. When I call this a nightmare, I’m minimizing the pain and the terror, the discouraged wonder if that was just “the new normal” as I’d passed some invisible age milestone.
Additionally, I was barely sleeping at night and could barely keep my eyes open in the morning when it was time to daven. All too often I’d doze only to awake on the floor. One would think/hope that these moments of total mitzvah involvement would bring some sort of invulnerability. They don’t.
As we sing in Hallel (Tehillim (Psalms) 115:17) “The dead cannot praise God, nor they who have fallen into irresistible sleep.” It turned out that every night, as my massively improper dosage of insulin bleached every bit of glucose from my system, stripping me of energy and suspending me over the all-too-real threat of coma, the urgency with which I longed to pray, to praise The Creator, to deepen my relationship with The Infinite might well have been the operant life-saving mechanism.
As the old folk song goes, “You don’t miss the water ’till your well runs dry”. Having just moved (once again) to Israel, I didn’t expect to become so complacent so soon, expecting it as merely “my due”, to experience the intense closeness that is available here and so elusive in the diaspora, which come from merely giving voice to the eternal words of David HaMelech”.
You never know when and how your faith and commitment will be tested. And you never know if you passed.