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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou?

It's rare these days for me to be asked to address a Jewish organization. Last week featured one such occasion, and here is the text of my address:

We are all familiar with Hannah's silent prayer in the first chapter of Samuel, pleading for the opportunity to bear a child. But a more puzzling 'prayer' appears in the second chapter, after Samuel is born and she makes good on her promise to deliver him to serve full time at the Tabernacle in Shiloh.

The chapter reads: "And Hannah prayed: My heart is overjoyed with God... my mouth is expansive against my enemies, because I am happy with Your salvation. There is none so holy as God... and no bastion like our Lord." Then she goes on at some length about how the downtrodden eventually rise up and the good guys always win in the end. This sounds like a celebratory poem in the tradition of Moses and Deborah. What is puzzling is that it is not identified as "singing", the expression used in those instances, but rather as "praying". How is celebrating creation in general, or personal good news in particular, quantified as a form of prayer?

The answer, I believe, lies in the Talmudic tradition which teaches that when she said there is no bastion like our Lord, there was a double meaning intended. The word 'tzur' for bastion (or rock) can also be read as 'tzayar', meaning artist. Hannah meant to say that the human being is the greatest work of art in existence (Talmud Brachot 10a).

Why would Hannah be the one person in history to deliver that particular message? I think that is simple to understand. She prayed the hardest for a child and so she appreciated its artistic magnificence the most.

This, it seems to me, is the prayer. When you praise the artist Who made everything we see on this planet, you are leaning on Him a little to keep that beauty at its sharpest.

A good way to demonstrate this is to cite a recent story from Michigan. A group of school kids went on a class visit to a museum, and one bored ten-year-old stuck a piece of chewing gum onto one of the paintings. Even after it was removed, there was a moisture stain the size of a half-dollar that marred the beauty of the painting. A half-million dollar masterpiece had been reduced to a fraction of its value. When we praise God's masterpiece, it is a way of asking Him to remove its real or perceived blemishes. Any person who needs a healing or a living or a child is a stain on the painting, and it behooves the Artist to clean the canvas.

I believe that this must be our approach to political and cultural involvement as well. We need to focus primarily on the beauty of our nation's founding documents, its history, its providing of opportunity both past and present, its virtue in war and peace. Highlighting that will make the flaws, such as may stubbornly persist, stand out in ways that will encourage the populace to make the necessary repairs.

In a spirit of admiration for this country, gratitude towards its founders and leaders, and appreciation for the gritty men and women who go out and make it work every single day, we can live in profound happiness and share that with all of mankind.


Matt Huisman said...

…and it behooves the Artist to clean the canvas.

Jay, as always, I love when you share your insights through a look at your tradition. I very much agree with you that the role of praise and admiration is a significant one, and has utility beyond mere recognition. There aren’t too many people out there that really get this right (and I include myself here).

Case in point, there is much in this piece that I really like and would otherwise praise – but I’m going to ask you about the line I highlighted above. It has a bit of an odd feel to it. Would you mind elaborating on that one a little bit? In what way or for what reason does it behoove the Artist to make a change (or even respond)?

Just wondering. The relationship or interplay between artist and canvas is one that I could always use a fresh take on.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Matt, I think that there is an overall beauty in Creation that forms the backdrop for all of life. There are still many terrible things happening in the foreground.

Let's even assume that nothing bad happens without human agency, i.e. either acts of Man choosing evil, and acts of God punishing Man for prior choices. Still, God has unlimited powers of intercession. They are limited only by His own original decisions in building systems into Creation, and current decisions based on contemporary behavior or special needs.

The realm of prayer operates within a certain range of changeable decisions and/or not-yet-finalized decisions. This exists as a sort of clemency or pardon system, when penalties are removed or modified; as a sort of appropriations application, when extra resources for life are supplied by special request.

My idea was that Hannah introduces a novel approach to prayer: show appreciation for the beauty and artistry of Creation to the extent that the Creator is motivated to SHOW even more of those.

I suppose I need to add one more point, although this leads into a larger discussion. Namely, that God wants us to SEE the greatness of His handiwork, as indicated in numerous verses. However, it is equally clear that much of that greatness cannot be seen.

For a simple example, men walked the earth for thousands of years with no clue that it held the makings of a telephone, an automobile and an airplane. We SEE greatness that David and Isaiah could not.

My theory is (and I think Hannah's prayer is a strong clue to this) that the more effort we invest in SEEING what God has given us already, the more He will let us SEE by revealing more of the endless aces up His sleeve.

Matt Huisman said...

Great stuff, Jay – I really like the way you laid that out.

I quite agree that SEEING and acknowledging God’s splendor is part of His path to revealing even more. The interesting part is the role of prayer in this process. I can’t tell if we’re in exact agreement, or miles apart! I lean toward the notion that we pray in this way to affirm our understanding of the source of this splendor and establish our connection (conformity) with His purposes. We’re involved in a process designed to prepare us for further revelation – to prepare us to BECOME what we were designed to become. In other words, we’re not going to SEE it until we’re ready.

What makes us ready? Not sure. I agree with your notion that it’s centered around praise and appreciation. It’s just that the story of Hannah has a certain hammering quality to it that makes me a think that it’s a little grittier version of seeing and appreciating than we’re normally accustomed to talking about.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, Jay. I liked your explication even better than your original post.

Certainly the concept of an interactive G-d is appealing: that one might cajole Him into additional blessings through prayer.

But perhaps the interactivity of "grace" is sufficient, that when asked, He blesses us with the strength and discernment to accept His will, and appreciate its beauty. And perfection.

I'm also reminded of this thought from Rodney Stark, who was recommended to us by his student, our own Hunter Baker, about the Christian tradition:

[F]rom the earliest days, the major theologians taught that faith in reason was intrinsic to faith in God. As Quintus Tertullian instructed in the second century, "Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason — nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason."

Consequently it was assumed that reason held the key to progress in understanding scripture, and that knowledge of God and the secrets of his creation would increase over time.

St. Augustine (c. 354-430) flatly asserted that through the application of reason we will gain an increasingly more accurate understanding of God, remarking that although there are "certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp ... one day we shall be able to do so."

In other words, He has hidden His glory in plain sight, and we need only ask for the eyes to see.

G-d's sneaky that way...

Jay D. Homnick said...

I'm with you, Tom.

And I always liked the Jewish system of handling the interplay between reason and faith. Man is RESPONSIBLE to use reason to apprehend God to the extent that it can, and then to use faith for whatever is beyond reason.

Matt Huisman said...

In other words, He has hidden His glory in plain sight, and we need only ask for the eyes to see.

That reminds me of something I saw a couple of weeks ago. I can't remember who the quote was attributed to, but it went something like 'the future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed.' The point being that we need to engage each other more in order to move forward.

Great line, but I suspect he wasn't getting full value out of it. There's a lot more future lying around than what's in the head of the guy accross the hall.

G-d's sneaky that way...

Omni-potent; omni-scient; omni-sneaky?