I started to pray as a favor to a friend. Not G-d—it was this guy Joe, someone I knew from my college dorm. One day he was on the way to afternoon services, running through the Art Corridor where all the dark, cool art majors hung out. I was trying to hang out with the dark, cool art majors, and feeling hopelessly outclassed.
“Come to mincha,” he told me. “We need an extra guy.” What could I say? I wasn’t doing anything, and my friend Chris had departed for class five minutes ago, and I was huddled in a powwow with a bunch of people who were looking at me with increasingly who-the-hell-is-he glances.
So I went. There were a bunch of college kids, a few old guys, three Iranian refugees who ran the kosher cafeteria where they held services. (“Kosher cafeteria” was a charitable way of putting it: it was a basement kitchen in the college Hillel. Maybe nine kids were on the kosher meal plan at any given time. They charged an arm and a leg, and it still never made any money.) Everyone was waiting around, kicking the carpet and leafing through an Alan Dershowitz book about Israel filled with arguments that anyone who would ever read it already agreed with.
Joe and I showed up. We were the ninth and tenth men. I’m not sure who went through the doorway first. Probably me, so he got the actual existential credit for being the man who made the minyan. But everyone made a huge deal about me, asking my name and my major and my city of origin and my Jewish background, psyched that Judaism was spreading throughout the campus and people were hungry to pray. They said I was a miracle sent from G-d.
We prayed in a hurry, some kids were five minutes late for class, each of us whispering to ourselves. I cracked open the prayerbook, read from the English side, murmured the prayers loud enough to dare anyone to question my language choice. Of course, nobody did. In spiritual terms, you’re allowed to pray in any language you understand. On a purely practical level, everyone was paying too much attention to their own prayers to give half a damn about mine. I didn’t care. I was in ecstasy. I was in spiritual extasy, a rebirth of religion happening in my on head, feeling this sudden and imminent care about something indefinite and intangible that didn’t even exist. I needed to help make the minyan. I needed to pray.
The second day, there were only six of us. No one said I was a G-dsent miracle that day.
But I came back. I kept coming back, day after day, just as surprised at myself as everyone else was. Partly I loved that impromptu community, the ten or almost-ten or just-over-ten people who come together almost by accident, sorted by coincidences and chaos and G-d to be in that spot at that time.
In the Talmud, it says morning prayers are easy. Yes, they’re an hour long instead of ten minutes, but you always remember to pray then—it’s early. You haven’t started your day. Likewise, evening prayers come after you’ve finished doing everything else. But mincha, the sunset service, comes in the middle of the day. You have to leave work (or class, or early drinking, or whatever else you’ve got going on). You have to leave yourself and go find G-d.
We depend on the sun as much as we depend on its absence. The day makes everything familiar; night falls and we’re uneasy about what’s lurking in the shadows, what unknown fears might be lurking near us and our homes, but it also lures us to sleep.
It’s the in-between time that’s shady. Last week we watched the sunset together from the top of the house: me, my 8-year-old, the 5-year-old, the baby. The 8-year-old was the one who instigated it. “Purple!” she kept screaming. “The sky is turning purple!”
We all ran over, alarmed. I was sure it was some sort of Communist attack.
And then we all watched, and the 2-year-old yelled “purple! Purple!” over and over again, and the 5-year-old said, “I can’t believe this happens every day!” Not that she’s clueless or daft. I know what she meant. What she really meant was, I can’t believe this happens every day and we never pay attention.”
Which, you know, also kind of sums up how we are about G-d.
There’s an event happening at sunset. It’s every day, but next week, Elad put together an official Facebook invite to watch the sunset. You should come if you want. And yes, Facebook is totally horrible and Facebook events are caustic and cheesy, but how miraculous is it to use the Internet specifically to tell you to get off the Internet?
Two more things I have to tell you about. Both are wars. The first happened during World War I, where the British and German armies were fighting. Word spread around that the German front was going to have off for Nittelnacht, what the gentiles call Christmas. For 24 hours (yeah, they’re goyim), the two armies declared a truce, and soldiers wrote letters home, hung out, drank together, and played a game of football in the snow. Of course, the next day they went back to killing each other again — but, for that Christmas, they checked out and tapped into something that was bigger than them.
And yes, you could say it was all because it was the birthday of a Jewish guy and so it’s all our fault, but I wasn’t going to go there. Really, I think their motive goes back even farther: to Elijah the Prophet. Somewhere around the time of I Kings Chapter 18, Elijah gets called to go before King Ahab. This is not a good idea, nor a good time: Ahab is slaughtering all the prophets, and everyone left is hiding in caves. But Elijah goes anyway. It becomes a huge confrontation: King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and 950 idolatrous priests on one side, Elijah on the other. It seems as though a bloodbath will ensue.
And then Elijah does the last thing they expect him to do. He prays.
He tells the idolatrous priests to pray, too. He’s just like: why are we wasting our words on each other? Let’s devote ourselves to what we care about the most. Which I should do all the time, and most of the time, I can never remember to do. I can never just take myself out of the picture.
In some way, Elijah makes it into a contest: who’s really going to send down fire from Heaven to accept the offering, G-d or the idols? But in the moment, he’s less focused on results and more on the process — more on the present.