Learning Torah can be dangerous to our well-being. It can cause serious damage to our self-esteem. That would happen particularly when we read something that, in a certain way, inspires us, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves because we are not on that level.
The truth is that there are a multitude of such gaps in Jewish liturgy, literature, mysticism, etc. When a “technology” (to use R’ Zalman’s word) is presented and no attention is given to explain how that technology is to be used (and the expectations that should go along with it) it can run amok and leave people feeling hurt, empty, and disillusioned.
Prayer is a common locus for such misunderstanding and pain. One might believe that, once he or she has prayed, then results will follow. (The talmud does deal with that by communicating that iyun tefillin - literally, looking deeply into prayer, figuratively “depending upon one’s prayer, that it will be heard” (Rashi) - evokes a reminder of a person’s sin; “heard” here seems to mean “heard, accepted”.)
The language of prayer can lead one to big questions: If God “heals the sick”, then why isn’t She healing Aunt Gertrude? Did I do something wrong? Did she? If God opens the eyes of the blind, why are there so many blind people? Is God paying attention?
This can lead down a rabbi-hole of complex questions, and can lead to serious crises of faith. I understand (not well enough, but at least in name) that prayer is not necessarily determinative of reality, and that, just because we pray for something, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen, and there are many factors, etc. etc. But my point is that we are forced into certain apologetics about prayer because the language of the liturgy lends itself to expectations that therefore require disabusing. And those apologetics are sometimes exist on a slippery slope of reasoning that will require further damage control down the line.
For example, one way (and this is not Rebbe Nachman’s way, BTW) is that we say prayer doesn’t really change the world - it changes us. Now, aside from the very obvious critique that this sounds an awful lot like Reconstructionist Judaism (a point I will BH come back to), one of the big questions on this point is, well, if this is supposed to change me, why should I be using words that I either don’t understand or don’t identify with? If these prayers don’t capture my actual concerns, why should I prayer them? And if understanding is not essential in order to transform me, does that mean they are magical?
All that to say, when a text comes along and tells it like it is, it is such a relief. Suddenly, you feel you’re back in the saddle, like the Torah does in fact reflect and describe (and therefore is allowed to proscribe) your relationship to reality. I found such a passage on this week’s parsha in the Torah Sheleimah (I know I’ve already harped on what an essential text this is. But I mean it). The Torah says, “And it was, over those many days, the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned from their toil, and they cried out, and their crying-out rose up to God because of their toil. And God heard their wailing….” The Midrash (Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4) says, on this verse:
“…to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed is He, Blessed is His Name, - sometimes He is seen, and sometimes He is not seen; sometimes He hears, and sometimes He does not wish to hear; sometimes He answers, and sometimes He does not answer; sometimes He is sought-after (meaning, allows Himself to be found, after searching? ed.), sometimes He is not sought-after; sometimes He is found, sometimes He is not found; sometimes He is close, and sometimes He is not close.”
Thank you! Thank you for stating the clearly! Even if the reasons why God “chooses” to not hear, or not be found, or not be close would remain a complete mystery, I find this infinitely more satisfying than telling me God is always near (Hashem is here! Hashem is there! Hashem is truly everywhere! Up! Up!) and then leaving me to wonder what exactly I am doing wrong such that I cannot find a connection where I am, which, if I had a partner-in-dialogue with whom to figure that out, I’d love to have that conversation! But if it is just me bouncing my questions off of my neuroses, that’s not going to get far enough to be definitive...
(Also, there is some work that has to be done to figure out whether and how this reconciles with Rebbe Nachman LM I:6:3. Another time.)