Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We are Your children, and You are our Father

When God struck Miriam with leprosy, Moshe prayed for her. According to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, he intensified that prayer by drawing a circle, getting inside it, and telling God that he would not leave until his sister was healed. This tactic seems to work: “b’ota sha’ah” “at that very time” God tells Moshe that God will have mercy on her for Moshe’s sake.

Choni HaMe’agel famously used this strategy to pray for rain (and then to pray for the rain to stop when it worked too well, in a scene that always reminded me of Strega Nona’s spaghetti). My first thought was that this reflects a theology where God is dependent on people: God must need Moshe and Choni, or he would be able to say “All right, then. Stay there and die of thirst.” I understand how someone might make a neder that she would bring a sacrifice to the Temple if God answers her prayers, but here, Moshe and Choni assume that what God wants is us, and that assumption seems to be correct.

I have been thinking about this image of God who needs people lately, as part of my new obsession with the medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda HaLevi, which started a few weeks ago when my teacher Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky showed me one of his poems. In another of his poems, “Ya’alat Chen,” “The Graceful Doe,” a lover describes his relationship with a woman whom he loves and who seems to love him but who often rejects and hurts him. According to my very cursory looks at what people say about this poem on the internet, it could be either a straight-up human love poem or a poem from God’s point of view about God’s relationship with Israel. I’ll assume the latter for now. The Hebrew isn’t showing up right, so I’ll write using my own problematic translation, but here it is.

Much of the poem is spent describing how attracted God is to beautiful Israel, and how Israel rejects God over and over: “She trapped my heart with the breasts that rest on it—A heart like a rock, but it brought out two apples!” and “I was longing for her love like a drunkard for wine,” says God, and when he finally had his hands “grazing in her garden and touching her breasts,” she tells him to take his hands away. A reasonable person might ask whether he should really be in this relationship, but that does not seem like a question for him: he says that, if his lover ever leaves “[her] leaving will be his tragedy.” Here, God needs the need the lover, but just because he loves her, not for anything in particular.

The Choni  story provides a relationship where the lack of reciprocity might seem less troubling. After Choni stops the rain, Shimon ben Shatach tells him, “If you were anyone else, I would have put a ban of excommunication on you. But what can I do against someone like you, who need only tell God his needs and God fills them, the way a son can tell his father his needs and his father will fill them” (Ta’anit 19a). God does not want Moshe and Choni to stay in their circles forever, not because he needs them to be functional for him, but because he loves them. In fact, in God’s response to Moshe, God compares himself to Miriam’s father (and therefore also Moshe’s).  Moshe is often described the one who sees God face-to-face, but here, the relationship is markedly unequal, and that works for both parties. The tactic of staying in a circle until you get what you want might seem more appropriate to a sulky three-year-old than to the leaders of our people, but in these stories, we are God’s toddlers, and that is one of the things God loves most about us: in each of these stories, people tried ordinary verbal prayers, but God was more affected by the appeal to God's parental side and the reminder of our childlike vulnerability.

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