Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah would pray when he entered the Beit Midrash (=House of Study) and when he left, a brief prayer.They said to him: What is the nature of this prayer?He answered: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion. (Mishna Berakhot 4:2)
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Rabbi Nehunya has been on my mind. In the last three weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of entering and exiting and everywhere I went, I taught this text. Three weeks ago at our Ten Hour Israeli alumni seminar in Tel Aviv. Two weeks ago with our North American Alumni Board members in Boston. Last week in Arizona, Becky and I got to study it with Adam Bronfman (and our tireless board president, Dana Raucher). Last night – already back in Jerusalem – it was with my virtual journal group of 2015 Bronfmanim. In each place, the teaching resonated differently, but the questions were the same. I feel so thankful to be a part of this varied and spread out community and to be able to study Torah with people united by their thirst for learning, for intentionality and for community.
As a Thanksgiving gift, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about this text (here it is in a sourcesheet format, in case you dare share it at your table). And as my own personal moment of Thanksgiving, I want to share some unabashedly promotional snapshots from the Bronfmanim community which have inspired me these last few weeks. As Paris and Brussels, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, New Haven and Chicago, become ever more complicated places, I return to the power of the Bronfman community to serve as an antidote to polarization, a breath of inspiration amid cynicism, a model for a community of nuance amid disagreement.
On any given day, we find ourselves entering and exiting a variety of locations and contexts. In each place we have a different role to play, a specific responsibility, a different amount of power we can wield. We might even hold different names in each context (friend, father, boss, student, employee, client, daughter…). We move between these contexts constantly, and sometimes - like a whisper only we can hear - the context is switched and our role becomes entirely different than the one before it. In this decade of smartphones, our contexts keep switching and overlapping in faster and faster succession. We are constantly entering and exiting.
But then Nehunia ben haKanah stands at the doorway, and pauses for a brief prayer. “What is the nature of your prayer?” they challenge him. “Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion.”
I’d suggest Nehunia’s prayer is a call to intentionality as we enter and exit our various contexts. He’s warning us about the detriments of not noticing the context that we’re in, not being aware of the role, responsibility, and power that we wield; of the name we must answer to. His solution for himself was to create short moments of intentionality, kavana, and tefilla. He allows his hands to shake a bit, before entering a role of power and responsibility. Let no mishap happen because of me. Then, upon exiting, he brings his hands together in thanksgiving and appreciation, ensuring that next time he enters, he recalls the goodness and not just the trepidation.
Nehunia’s personal prayer is metonymic of the entire project of Mishna Berakhot, the tractate from which this aphorism is taken. Berakhot is a calling to live intentionally in the world, and it offers a unique formula, which one could call “The Secret Structure of Jewish prayer”, but I prefer to call it: The Art of Sandwich making.
Berakhot encourages us to sandwich our experiences, trials and tribulations with brief prayers. “Before one enters a city, say one prayer. As you leave the city, say one prayer”. We are called to say a blessing before eating, and four blessings after. So too with waking and sleeping, with learning, with seeing an old friend. We even say blessings before we say blessings, and say blessings after we’ve said blessings. Sandwich upon sandwich upon sandwich.
Yet before it became a ritual murmuring, it was a call to intentionality. A note to self: be wary of the power you wield. A reminder: be thankful for our portion. I’d like to enter all my contexts the way Nehunia enters the Beit Midrash.
Learning, Service and Reciprocal Kindness
The last two words of Nehunia’s prayer deserve an extra focus. He gives thanks, acknowledgement – a noble and universal sentiment – but not for his destiny, or calling. Rather, for his portion. As he leaves, he demarcates an area which is “his portion”. The language is interesting: “portion” acknowledges that what he has is part of something larger than himself, that he is simply a part, a portion, of a grander scheme. Yet on the other hand, it is undoubtedly his. “My portion”. May my portion be among those that are thankful for their portion. merely my portion, yet it is mine nontheless. Even if I never get to see the whole.
This past month I’ve been lucky to experience many such moments of thanksgiving; of seeing that portion that we at the Bronfman Fellowships have received in the world. They are the outcome of the hard work of our amazing team; of the trust, thirst and care that you - our community - invest in it, and of the fruition of Edgar's vision which Becky and I have been lucky to call our portion. And it feels both entirely new and as old as the most cliched Mishna in our tradition. Our portion stands on three things.
When eighty busy Israeli Bronfmanim in their twenties and thirties take two days out of their lives to re-immerse in deep face to face conversations, or when fifty college students cram into a room at ten o’clock on a Friday night because of a thirst to engage in a kind of study too rare on their campuses – our portion is one of true learning, Torah Lishma.
When ten friends drive three hours in the desert to console a Bronfman alum they hadn’t seen in years as she buries her estranged father surrounded by strangers – our portion is one of Gemillut Hasadim, reciprocal kindness and support.
When Israeli and North American alumni board members come together across time zones and language barriers to discuss with seriousness and enthusiasm how to allocate money that you entrusted in their hands, and to discuss whether to support projects in communities distant from them geographically and ideologically, yet that they care about deeply, our portion is one of Avodah, service and social responsibility.
As I exit this month of Bronfman busyness, I pray that these moments illuminate something on your end as they have in mine. In a world of many mishaps, I give thanks for a community that helps me regain faith in learning, service and communal support. As clichéd as that sounds, sometimes faith in clichés is what the world needs more of.
רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא בֶּן הַקָּנֶה הָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מַה מָקוֹם לִתְפִלָּה זוֹ?
אָמַר לָהֶם:בִּכְנִיסָתִי - אֲנִי מִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁלֹּא תְּאַרַע תַּקָּלָה עַל יָדִי. וּבִיצִיאָתִי - אֲנִי נוֹתֵן הוֹדָאָה עַל חֶלְקִי.