March 10, 2023

Nedarim 90

The Mishna (Nedarim 11:12) that is quoted and discussed in today’s daf (Nedarim 90b), the penultimate daf in our Massechet, informs us that if a married woman says to her husband: הַשָּׁמַיִם בֵּינִי לְבֵינָךְ – ‘Heaven is between me and you’, then יַעֲשׂוּ דֶּרֶךְ בַּקָּשָׁה – ‘they should deal with the matter by way of a request’.
According to some commentaries, the woman’s choice of reference to ‘heaven’ is because no other human being knows of the problem that is so troublesome in their marriage, and this is because, as we learn in tomorrow’s daf (Nedarim 91a), the woman is raising a complaint about her husband’s sexual impotence. But if this is so, how are we to understand the words יַעֲשׂוּ דֶּרֶךְ בַּקָּשָׁה – ‘they should deal with the matter by way of a request’?
Tosfot suggests that this ‘request’ relates to the previous reference to heaven, meaning that the couple should pray to God to heal this problem.
In contrast, the Yerushalmi, as quoted by the Ran, implies that rather than the ‘request’ being expressive of a prayer to God, it is – in fact – expressive of a conversation between the husband and wife who should sit down together, perhaps over a drink or a meal, to talk through their issues and to figure out whether the situation is tenable. In short, they should either have a frank talk to figure out a way to move forward together in terms of this dimension of their marriage, or they should go to a marriage or sex therapist to help them with this process.
It is possible for us to understand these explanations of ‘prayer’ and ‘conversation’ as being two different, and mutually exclusive, interpretations. However, I believe – on the basis of a stunning explanation of Rabbi Sacks (Covenant and Conversation – Chayei Sarah: Isaac and Prayer) – that they are one and the same, and this is because when we talk with others, we are also oftentimes praying:
“When the Talmud (Brachot 26b) says, in the context of Isaac, ein sichah ela tefillah, we could translate this phrase as “conversation is a form of prayer” – and in a profound sense it is so. Prayer is a conversation (between heaven and earth). But conversation is also a prayer – for in true conversation, I open myself up to the reality of another person. I enter his or her world. I begin to see things from a perspective not my own. In the touch of two selves, both are changed. A genuine human conversation is therefore a preparation for, and a microcosmic version of, the act of prayer. For in prayer I attend to the presence of God, listening as well as speaking, opening myself up to a reality other and infinitely vaster than my own, and I become a different person as a result. Prayer is not monologue but dialogue. Before every amidah we say, “O God open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” In a real sense, therefore, in prayer we do not simply speak; we are also spoken. God – and the traditions of Jewish faith – speak through us. The very words we use are not our own but those of thousands of years of our people’s history as they encountered God and articulated their response. Prayer is like an electrical connection, and while it lasts we become a channel through which the energy of the universe (creation) and Jewish history (redemption) flows, and which we make our own. That is prayer as sichah.”
Overall, I believe that both Tosfot and the Ran’s explanations are true, because the kinds of conversations that occur to help hold together and heal relationships aren’t just conversations; they are, in actual fact, forms of prayer as well.
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