Prayer

The Things We Carry

...set it down before you pray.
— BT Bava Metzia 105b

What a strange and frightening week it's been. On Friday, a man gunned down five travelers in Fort Lauderdale's airport and hurt many others, sending the airport into a tailspin for days. On Sunday, in Jerusalem's Armon Ha-Natziv neighborhood, a terrorist plowed down four Israeli soldiers with a truck. On Monday, 16 JCCs up and down America's East Coast evacuated members because of bomb threats. Going on vacation or sending your child to a half day of organized play and learning has become freighted with existential angst. If someone is trying to scare us, it's working.
 
I flew in and out of the same Fort Lauderdale airport on Sunday and Monday and used the opportunity to look for ways that the newly dead were memorialized. I saw nothing. I am sure that there were signifiers of the tragedy somewhere, but what I saw instead were lots of news trucks and lots and lots of weary travelers. On Monday, I was teaching a class in Miami about the time that bomb threats were made at two JCCs in the area. I knew something was going wrong because a pulse of anxiety spread through the room, panicked moms were texting to find out about their pre-school age children or grandchildren, and those in charge of security were on high alert. Everyone wanted to know, "Is this real?"
 
When random acts and threats of danger happen in innocuous places, it makes us all more vigilant, more suspicious, more cautious and more anxious. It's not an anxiety that any of us want, but it's one that we are now forced to carry. I was thinking about this unwanted burden when I came across a fascinating passage in the daily study of Talmud this past Monday.
 
"With regard to one who carries a load on his shoulder, and the time for prayer arrives, if the load is less than four kav, he lowers it behind him while holding it and prays. If the load is four kav or more, he lowers it and then prays" [BT Bava Metzia 105b]. A kav is a talmudic measurement of about 24 egg bulks. Why the ancient scholars used eggs as a measurement of volume, I'll never know. They knew nothing about cholesterol then, but they did know that an egg bulk was a common enough feature of farm life. It was reasonable to assume that it represented a measurement all would be familiar with in their day.
 
If you are carrying less than the equivalent weight of 96 eggs, and the time comes for prayer, you are allowed to pray while holding your load. The assumption is that such a measurement is still manageable and would not distract you from having the proper intention in prayer. Why not put down your load anyway? If you were traveling, you might feel more secure holding on tightly to your belongings out of fear of loss or theft. But, the rabbis of old contend, if the burden is too great, then you must set it down before you pray. That load will irritate you and distract you. You will not be able to focus on the spiritual matter at hand. Maimonides [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 5:5] and the Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative 16th century code of law, concur [O.H. 97:5].

Prayer is a form of codified mindfulness. Prayer for Jews is not to be separated from labor but is meant to punctuate our ordinary routines. We break from travel, from plowing, from our desk jobs to say a few words of gratitude and praise, to remind us of our purpose and to shield us from threats to our values. And yet, if our prayers are encumbered by the weight of our work, we are told to lighten the load and then pray. We get weighed down and then the best of our thoughts cannot be properly articulated.
 
Reading Tim O'Brian's meditation on war and memory, The Things We Carried, was the first time I really thought about the pain that soldiers carry that has no real weight but is freighted by terrible trauma and the stresses of war. "They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity." He continues, "They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." The burden is immense and simply too heavy to bear at times.
 
In an age of hate crimes and global terrorism, we all somehow become soldiers on the front-lines, even against our will and the better angels of our nature. This has psychic costs too complex to measure. It is as if, like the farmer with a heavy load, we are carrying something extra all of the time. A burden of worry. We want to put it down to pray, to extend love, to reach out in compassion, but we can't. Not yet. Danger lurks, and we must be on guard.
 
In such circumstances, the only way to lighten the load is to carry it together.
 
Shabbat Shalom