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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Searching for God — BT Berakhot 48a — #15

Abaye and Rava were seated before Rabbah [when they were young boys]. Rabbah said to them: To whom does one recite blessings? They said to him: To the Merciful One. [Rabbah asked them:] Where does the Merciful One reside? Rava pointed toward the ceiling. Abaye went outside and pointed toward heaven. Rabbah said to them: You will both become rabbis. It is as the folk saying: A pumpkin can be recognized from its blossoming.

How often have you heard parents keeling about an incident that confirms in their mind that their young child is exceptionally bright? Our story concerns a similar moment, when Abaye and Rava are still young boys learning at the feet of their teacher, Rabbah, and he discerns in their answers to the question, “Where does God reside?” exceptional intellectual and spiritual promise.

The context for this story is a broader discussion of Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessings recited after a meal that includes bread. More immediately, the Rabbis are discussing how many people are required for the zimun (the formal invitation to join in Birkat ha-Mazon) under a variety of circumstances, one of which concerns a minor who is not yet obligated by the mitzvot and would therefore usually not be counted. R. Yochanan says that if the minor shows signs of maturity (i.e., entering puberty), that is sufficient. A baraita is brought that specifies precisely what signs of puberty are required to justify counting the minor as an adult for the purposes of zimun but then includes this seeming contradiction: “But one is not exacting with regard to a minor.” Our story comes to explain this enigmatic addendum in the baraita, which suggests that some minors are more adult than others and a judgment call is appropriate.

Abaye and Rava were distinguished sages and Torah superstars. Their numerous debates, known collectively as Havayot d’Abaye v’Rava, are famous. Abaye rose to be the master of the great academy at Pumbedita. Rava (whose real name was Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) left Pumbedita and founded another great academy in Mechoza.

On the surface, this brief story is deceptively simple. When asked where God abides, one boy points to the ceiling; the other goes outside and points skyward. How does this foretell greatness? The Talmudic commentator Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, Poland) says that the boys did not even understand the question; they parroted what they had observed from parents and teachers, indicating that they could learn by repetition. This hardly seems to presage greatness. But perhaps that is not the point. Perhaps the Rabbis are using the story of the boys’ responses to illustrate two very different approaches to finding or knowing, and relating to, God.

When Rava points to the ceiling, he suggests that God is imminent, and we can experience God within the structure of the lives we live: home, school, relationships, customs and traditions, joys and pleasure, sorrow and losses. We come to know God through our experiences day in and day out. Abaye, in pointing to the sky, suggests that God, who is transcendent, can be found in the majesty and enormity of the universe, in contemplating mysteries that are beyond our understanding and that overwhelm our imagination. Rabbah does not declare one answer correct and the other wrong. Rather, he affirms both answers and thereby multiple paths to knowing and experiencing God. Each of us has a different temperament, and differing proclivities and sensibilities. As there are many conceptions of God, there are many routes to finding God and experiencing God’s presence in our lives.

If we could find God in small things, could we find God in all things? 

  1. Another way to understand the distinction between Abaye’s and Rav’s gestures: One way to know God is by understanding the universe through examination, measurement, and analysis. Maimonides, like Aristotle before him, believed that the more one knows about the universe, the more one knows God. An alternative way to know God is through the abstract: emotions, aesthetics, ideas, and ideals. Does one of these modes appeal more to you than the other?
  2. Buddhists tell a precautionary tale about the formation of religious ritual: At the start of evening meditation in a certain monastery, a cat would begin howling. The spiritual teacher instructed his disciples to tie the cat to a pole so it wouldn’t be a distraction. Thereafter the cat was tied to the pole before prayer every evening. Many years later, the teacher died. The disciples continues to tie the cat to the pole each evening as they had always done. When the cat died, they found another cat and brought it to the monastery and continued the practice. Many years later, scholars wrote learned works on the significance of typing a cat to a pole as the prelude to meditation. Elizabeth Gilbert tells a version of this fable in Eat, Pray, Love, in which the cat’s death precipitates a religious crisis: How could they meditate without the cat tied to the pole? The ritual of the cat had become the essential and indispensable means to reaching God.  While the fable criticizes the calcification of ritual, it also affirms its power. Are there rituals that bring you closer to God? Do some create a barrier for you, making closeness more difficult to achieve?
  3. The Kotzker Rebbe, when asked where God can be found, famously responded, “Wherever you let God in.” Where can you, or where do you, let God into your life? What would it take for you to let God in?

Elijah’s experience of God: The Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire, a soft murmuring voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

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