The Automatic Pilot of Prayer

"Rabbi Shimon says:  Be meticulous in reading the Shema and in prayer; when you pray, do not make your prayer a set routine ..."

Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2, 18


Mumbling into her pillow
the man beside her asks no questions
after love making some women
envision things in the dark
it doesn't bind him
what does it matter what she whispers there
to herself
or to whom
Her eyelashes
the eyelids
even the sockets remember
she covers the eye openings with her cupped
right hand
and the words spilling from her
are sown within the sheets
in the moment before loosing herself to nothing
she says
the Shema Bedtime prayer.
She switches lovers
and still prays
strange unfamiliar beds
tainted sheets
sometimes even on the floor.
When passion is exchanged
suddenly with pain
her automatic pilot of prayer
turns on.
Still not wanting to fall asleep last
Hear Oh Israel!
is anyone listening
here in the dark?
and in the betraying light
there is a sign that her eyes aren't last
to close
must listen
so she thinks
sometimes allowing herself
to be sure.
Within the groves of her fingers
My Lord My God
My Lord
If the man beside her
would just listen to the trickle
at once he would understand
the childish chant, the automatic pilot
of prayer.
Only when she places
a dam in her words
and begins to take breaths
it appears to make sense to her.
An old man taught her how to pray
she refuses to think when.
Old people suggest fear
while children choose to be silent.
Grandfather, she said
tell me how to say it
she couldn't yet read or write
He said:
the Shema will protect you
and was declined to say
the demons are.
‘Women and child-slaves are exempt
from the Shema prayer'
This - he kept from her
maybe because she was still
a child
or a small handmaid
unaware who was her master.
She repeated after him: Oh Lord
Like a little parrot
arranging pebbles
on the banks of her memory
until the old man
was satisfied.
She turns her face into the wall
turning her back on her years
the whims of women, yawning
the man beside her
rolls over.
and no other.
From here we see
that all the lonely ones
cuddle up
on the beds
of land
or skies
If He - someone
would protect her
she would repay him
therefore not only
He should Hear
but also
The old man was mistaken
confused everything
she's not afraid of sleep
but of the morning after.
An incantation
a cry
Blessed be The Name of His Glorious
for ever and ever.
Just to be sure
she mutes
the voices.
The angel who redeems me
from all evil.
She asks:
also the evil
from within me?
Will bless (me and) the children.
But its not proper to worry about yourself before others
the old man said to her:
the children will be born from you
therefore you are first.
And may they carry on my name and the name of my fathers
Abraham and Isaac.
And why not Jacob?
She wouldn't want God forbid, to single out
any father.
Twelve sons stood
beside his bed
and swore to him
Hear Oh Israel.
and what of Dina, his daughter?
The old man gathered pebbles
from the banks of his memory.
Until Jacob's time
people died too suddenly
Jacob went and demanded
between the Times
the possibility of repenting
he was answered by whomever answers
and sickness was given.
May they multiply like fish
within the land.
The grove of her fingers
a net
fish flapping on land
a place of no life for them.
She questioned the old man:
and if I should ever forget?
He said:
sometimes prayer
fights back.
Get angry but don't sin
on this the old man lingered
anger is justified
He too - whom ever
would seethe
and when she asked about his sins
the old man was silent
and begged her not to grow up too quickly.
When she gets to
reflect in your heart
upon your bed
she starts to really fall asleep
because if the heart's bedded
she is ready to rest
the groves of her right fingers
grope for the heartbeat
on the left.
Be silent, Selah
hush now
soon all will be utterly still
the old man moved her hand
from the covered eye openings
and she breathed
from between the cracks.
All the rest he didn't teach her
purposely the old man skipped
the part
Grant me light lest I die in sleep.
Before the end she gets up
a stolen death-bed
the man beside her smiles in his sleep
That's it? The night's over already?
and once again turns over.
Be careful when praying
make sure not to be last
to close
your eyes.

My grandfather, Berel-Dov Likvarnick was dying at home. Beneath his prayer shawl and phylacteries the sickness gnawed at him, but he said his prayers with devotion. Before closing his eyes - and I, a child about to enter first grade - he taught me to say the Bedtime Shema by heart. That was his way of saying goodbye.

Published in: MAGGID: A Journal of Jewish Literature 3 (2009)
Translated by Prof. Michael P. Kramer
Michael P. Kramer directs the Lechter Institute for Literary Research at Bar-Ilan University and is the editor of MAGGID: A Journal of Jewish Literature USA.

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