Legs

Daf 32. Summary. “The legs of the enemies of Israel” are supported by three verses that also indicate that “one does not have sole responsibility for his actions”– i.e., God influences our decisions.

This is followed by examples of Moses speaking impertinently to God, who concedes that the Golden Calf resulted from the riches God bestowed on Israel. Moses says, “Master of the Universe, if a chair with three legs is unable to stand before You in Your moment of wrath, all the more so that a chair with one leg will be unable to withstand your wrath.” Moses became ill from continually praying to alter the fate of Israel. He remonstrated, “Master of the Universe, now the nations of the world will say that His strength weakened like a female and He is unable to rescue Israel.”

Rabbi Elazar says, “This story proves that prayer is greater than good deeds.” Also, “A fast is greater than charity.” Also, “Prayer is greater than sacrifices.” And finally, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked . . .  [but] the gates of tears were not locked.” The Sages argue over whether prayers are answered.

One should prepare for an hour before praying and sit an hour following prayer. The gemara wonders, “how was their work accomplished?”

Comment.This daf is full of contradictions. “The legs of the enemies of Israel” is traditionally understood to be a euphemism for Israel itself. By implication, Israel supports or strengthens its enemies by its own actions. However, here the verse is associated with the notion that God bears some responsibility for Israel’s actions. (Perhaps another way to say this is that our actions have dimensions to them that are colored by unconscious as well as conscious intentions.) To add to the puzzle, Moses speaks of Israel as a chair with these legs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). One version of the three-legged stool is our strength and another version is our weakness. And the question of whether God’s complicity in our failings undermines our autonomy is unresolved.

The power of prayer is illustrated by Moses’s impertinence. His prayer defies the template that has been advocated thus far– it is over-the-top with emotion; disregarding his stamina; and lacking reverence– and it prevails in saving Israel from destruction.

Rabbi Elazar teaches that prayer is greater than good deeds, but also that the gates of prayer were locked when the Temple was destroyed. Others counsel that prayer should be a time-consuming practice but worry that they will not have time to get their work done.

Perhaps we need to find a remedy in the escape clause that one may abbreviate the prayer when one is in danger by insisting on the defensible position that the danger has been perpetual since the Temple was destroyed. And if the gates of prayer are locked, our first prayer must be “open the gates!”

Many folios were devoted to the question of when to pray, though the issue was not clearly resolved. Likewise, we seem to be in the middle of a struggle with the questions of how to pray and why. And I expect that no resolution of these questions could ever be as satisfying as the model provided by the Talmud for keeping these questions open.

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