One of the oldest Jewish jokes in the book involves Mr. Cohen and Mr. Goldberg, regular minyan goers (meaning they pray together daily at the synagogue). One morning, as Mr. Cohen is hemming and hawing about going to synagogue, his wife asks: “Why do you even bother going? You don’t even believe in God!” His answer: “Goldberg talks to God — I talk to Goldberg.”
Today’s daf takes us from flatulence to priestly garments to a farcical search and capture of our evil impulses — the whole page is worth a read. But here I want to focus on a section toward the end that tackles, head-on, one of the most difficult challenges of Jewish prayer.
As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be he, to its former glory. How so?
Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles are carousing in his sanctuary; where is his awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say “awesome” in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name.” (Jeremiah 32:18)
Moses’ famous address to God as “the great, the mighty and the awesome God” will sound familiar to those who know the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish tradition. It’s the same formulation found in the Amidah’s first blessing: ha’El ha’gadol ha’gibbur v’ha’norah. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi notices that not all biblical characters use all three adjectives to address God. Jeremiah uses only “great” and Daniel uses only “great and awesome.” The reason is that each lived in a generation when Jews were suffering in some way — and so God’s glory felt attenuated to them.
Each of these examples (and there are more in the Gemara not quoted here) ultimately ask the same question. It is one that I am asked, often, as a rabbi today: How can I pray if the words do not reflect the way I see God in the world? How can I pray if I do not believe in God?
The Gemara offers an answer:
And the rabbis (i.e. Jeremiah and Daniel) — how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses (who instituted the mention of these three attributes in prayer)?
Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy Blessed One, that God is truthful and hates a lie. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about God.
The Talmud’s answer is simple and direct — and I’d like to think mine is as well. Bring your whole self to prayer. Let the words guide you, or let them challenge you. Agree with them, argue with them, or adjust them. Come to talk to God, or come to talk to Goldberg. But whatever you do, be honest with yourself, and with the Divine.
Read all of Yoma 69 on Sefaria.