Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption [“Mi Chamocha“] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b
We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
— David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.
Sunrise, the Shema and the Amidah
Berakhot [“Blessings,” the first section of the Talmud] begins with a discussion of when and how to recite the Shema and pray the Amidah. I’ve had the opportunity to learn some of this in recent months with Rabbi Charles Feinberg at Adas Israel and have been struck by how much attention the rabbis give to the concept of “juxtaposing redemption and prayer.”
The morning Shema is surrounded by blessings focusing on Torah as our connection to God: the Shema is immediately preceded by Ahava Rabbah [“great is Your love”] about God showing love for the Jewish people through teaching, immediately followed by emet veyatziv [“true and firm”], affirming the truth of the Shema, how real redemption from Egypt is in our lives. Emet veyatziv closes with the “Mi Chamocha” [“who is like You”] verses and we then move, without pause, to the Amidah.
Past redemption, and the Torah, is thus linked with prayers for future redemption. But the occasion for the entire sequence is the rising of the sun. And so, juxtaposing past and future redemption in our minds is planned to accompany God’s renewal of creation for another day.
Learning…and Dunkin’ Donuts
I love the passage about Rav Beruna: A pious man living in another country — so presumably there were no examples closer to hand — managed his prayer exactly as prescribed once (obviously not a common accomplishment). And it echoes beautifully through David Wolkin’s story of one morning on Lake Michigan — “a day Ferris Bueller would have taken off” — and a singular prayer experience: They prayed and went to Dunkin Donuts!
Perhaps one moral of both the Talmudic story and the Sermon Slam piece is that truly peak prayer experiences may be somewhat rare. But another is how learning can influence prayer…. And maybe the most crucial is the importance of telling and re-telling the stories.
More from Berakhot below. More on Sermon Slam here.
More from Berakhot
Mishna: From when does one recite Shema in the morning? From [when a person] can distinguish between sky-blue [tekhelet] and white. Rabbi Eliezer says: between sky-blue and leek-green. And [one must] finish [reciting Shema] until [the end of the period when you rise, ie., [sunrise], when the sun begins to shine….
Gemara: …If you say a pile of white wool and a pile of sky-blue wool, wouldn’t one know at night as well? Rather, between the sky-blue [string in the ritual fringes] and the white [strings] in [the ritual fringes].
It was taught Rabbi Meir says [when] one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog. Rabbi Akiva says between a donkey and wild donkey. And Aḥerim  [say: When one can see another [person, who is merely an acquaintances (Jerusalem Talmud) from] a distance of four cubits
Rav Huna said: The halakha [law] is in accordance with Aḥerim. Abaye said
phylacteries, is in accordance with Aḥerim. But [with regard to] the recitation [of Shema], in accordance with the vatikin . As Rabbi Yoḥanan said: the vatikin would conclude [recitation of the Shema] with sunrise, and one should act accordingly. It was also taught: The vatikin would conclude [the recitation of Shema] with sunrise in order to juxtapose [the blessing of] redemption, [which immediately follows the recitation of Shema], with prayer, and pray during the day….
Rabbi El’a said to Ulla [before Ulla left for Babylonia]: When you go to Babylonia, ask after my brother, Rav Beruna, in the presence of the entire group, as he is a great man who rejoices in mitzvot. Once, Rav Beruna juxtaposed redemption and prayer [at sunrise, as per custom of the vatikin], and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Berakhot 9b
1) “Others.” Stands for Rabbi Meir; see Horayot 13b
2) “Ones strong [in piety]” in Rabbinic Hebrew (“veteran” or “old ones” in modern Hebrew). Sometimes identified with Essences. Steinsaltz says “pious individuals who were scrupulous in their performance of mitzvot.”