Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tefilat Tal: How To Avoid Spiritual Dehydration

One of the seasonal shifts that came in with Pesach last week was that, having said Tefilat Tal (the Prayer for Dew) on the morning of the second day of the chag, we cease adding mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-geshem (“You make the wind blow and cause the rain to fall,”) to our Amidah every day, and (except in some Ashkenazi communities) replace it with the phrase morid ha-tal (“You cause the dew to fall,”) instead.

I have to say, I really love Tefilat Tal, much as I love Tefilat Geshem (where we introduce the reverse process of substitution in our Amidah), said on Shmini Atzeret. In part, I love them purely for reasons of liturgical geekery: they are arrays of piyyutim (liturgical poems) written in the highest medieval style of the genre, thick with allusive imagery wrought in incredibly elegant and concise, if sometimes abstruse, Hebrew. And I am a huge fan of that kind of work: it gives a happy to the poet in me, the liturgical scholar in me, the historian and the theologian in me.

And in part I love the way in which they keep our calendar tied to the rhythms of the agricultural year-- even if it’s just a little bit. I love that the concern for what kind of water and how much is being produced in Nature, which must have been so utterly central to the lives of our ancestors, remains as a reminder to us today; that even though we’re not farmers, we should be mindful about where our food comes from, and not just who we ought to thank for doing the hard work of growing it, but Who we ought to thank for it being possible for people to grow it at all.

I love them a lot, though, because they are prayers for water. And I love water. Water and earth are my elements, magically speaking; and I was born under a water sign, astrologically. I am only happy living near water, and, as Julie sometimes shakes her head over, I would rather see rain than shine any day.

And these tefilot for water seem to trigger something deep within me. Because I love water for its own sake, but the mystic in me responds equally potently to water imagery. In our tradition, Torah is often symbolized by water, as is prophecy and other positive forces. Moshe Rabbenu’s greatest miracle had to do with water (splitting the sea), Miriam his sister had her miraculous well. Avraham crossed rivers, Yakov wrestled the angel next to one. Yitzchak dug wells of water. Yishayahu prophesies, u-shav’tem mayim b’sason mi-mayanei ha-yeshua, “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the wellsprings of redemption.” The Psalmist reminds us that those who love Torah and speak words of Torah every day-- v’hayah k’eitz shatul al palgei mayim, “They are like a tree planted by pools of water.” The righteousness (which comes from learning Torah) that God craves, the prophet Amos likens to water: v’yigal ka’mayim mishpat, u’tzedakah k’nachal eitan, “Let justice crest like flooding waters, righteousness like a river in spate.” Even in the other direction, as it were, the Psalmist says, ka’ayal ta’arog ‘al afkidei mayim, ken nafshi ta’arog elecha Elohim, tzama nafshi l’Elohim, l’El Chai, “Like a stag longs for streams of water, even so my soul longs for You, O God: my soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” Bava Kama 82a uses Yeshayahu 55:1 (hoy kol tzamei l’chu la’mayim, “Oh all you who are thirsty, go to the waters!”) as a prooftext for why Torah is like water. And in Brachot 61b, Rabbi Akiva likens the Jewish People and Torah to fish swimming in water: take Torah away from the Jews, and we die. The Kabbalists refer to the “outpouring” of divine energy from Ein Sof (God’s ultimate infinite and transcendent aspect) out into the created world as nehora, which is Aramaic for “river” (and also, paradoxically, for “flame”).

I cannot resist the feeling that, in our prayers for water, we pray for all these things as well. And as I prepare my kavanah (intention) for saying Tefilat Tal, inevitably, as I imagine the Winter rains subsiding into the dews of Spring and Summer over thirsty ground, I also imagine the thirst I have for devekut (“cleaving close” to God, i.e., increased spiritual awareness, an increased sense of connection to God), and how that thirst can be quenched: through learning Torah and talking about it with my fellow Jews, through tefillah (prayer) and hitbodedut (meditation), through the observance and performance of mitzvot.

My best friend, Sarah, is a great advocate of proper hydration. She has taught me that often, we mistake dehydration (of one degree or another) for other complaints, or do not realize that other complaints are symptomatic of dehydration. Often when we think we hunger, we are thirsty; when we are tired and don’t know why, when we have headaches, indigestion, even backaches-- those things and many others can be from not drinking enough water.

I think that spirituality works very similarly. When we have other complaints in our lives, we often do not realize that they arise from lack of  “drinking enough water,” which is to say, from not taking the time to learn Torah, to daven (pray), to meditate, to do mitzvot with any kind of real kavanah (focus, intention). These things are not extra avocations that we might work into our lives, schedule permitting. They are foundational necessities of life, which require our prioritization, lest we become spiritually dehydrated. Torah, mitzvot, and prayer-- the three things on which the world rests, according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel-- are our spiritual nourishment, our spiritual discipline: they help keep us alive and healthy. And just like any doctor worth his or her salt will tell you that you ought to drink two to three liters of water a day for optimum health, any rabbi worth his or her salt should tell you to learn a little Torah, try to daven, and do some mitzvot each and every day, for optimum spiritual health. And in some ways, these things are even more important to keep in mind than drinking water, since if your body gets dehydrated enough, it will send you clear and unpleasant signals that you have to drink more or risk injuring yourself. But your soul can become very spiritually parched indeed before you comprehend its signals that you need more spiritual hydration, and by the time you work it out-- and some folks never do-- it can already have caused you injury. Spiritual dehydration’s symptoms-- which we often mistake for other things, or attribute to other causes-- can include general unhappiness, mental restlessness, devaluation of self, relationship issues, lack of fulfillment, feelings of meaninglessness, materialism, and-- in advanced cases-- greed, egotism, and lack of compassion and empathy. The connections aren’t always obvious-- just like with water, who would think to connect dehydration to hunger or backache?-- which is why it is all the more important to daven, learn, and do mitzvot regularly-- because you can never tell what will make the difference.

And yet, one of the striking elements of both Tal and Geshem is that, having elaborately and eloquently begged God to send us water, both close with corollaries of cautious specificity: livrachah v’lo li’k’lalah. L’chayim v’lo la’mavet. L’sova v’lo l’razon. “Let it be for blessing, and not for a curse. Let it be for life and not for death. Let it be for plenty and not for famine.” Because rain and dew must come in proper measure. Not having any water come leads to drought, thirst, and no crops. But having too much water come leads to floods, drownings, and fields being washed out. And likewise, with the symbolic water of Torah, mitzvot, and prayer, those also must be in proper measure. Too little leads to spiritual dehydration, meaninglessness, and unhappiness. But too much leads to zealotry, religious compulsiveness, and fanaticism. A balance has to be met. One should learn and daven a little every day, do some mitzvot every day, and do them all with happiness and not anxiety, with a kavanah (intention) of seeking to “draw closer” to God, to improve one’s own life and the lives of those around one, not just meticulousness to get the forms perfect. Because Torah and mitzvot should never be for a curse and for death-- either literal, spiritual, emotional, or social; they should always be for blessing and life-- literally and spiritually, for each one of us, and collectively, for all the People Israel.


1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! The times in my life where Torah plays an integral role are usually very happy times. And whenever I start to drift away from Torah is when I start to feel "spiritually dehydrated." The key is finding and maintaining a balance.


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