A Jewish Renewal Approach to Prayer

by Rabbi David Zaslow

How many of us are saddened that in our childhoods we learned the words to our Jewish prayers, but we rarely knew what we were saying? And today how many of us feel left out of services because we simply can’t read the Hebrew words quickly enough, or at all? Early in our Jewish educations we learn to pronounce the Divine Name as Adonai. In these times, when talking about the Lord many Jews prefer to use gender neutral names like Hashem (which literally means “The Name”), the Eternal, or the Holy One. The ineffable Name of God is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letter Name) and contains both masculine and feminine attributes of the Holy One. It is sometimes mistransliterated as “Jehovah” and translated in the masculine as “Lord.” The Holy Name is spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, and hey. Yet very few of us have ever been taught the inner meaning of this Name in relation to the structure of our services. Further, what does it mean when we repeatedly read in the siddur about God’s Name alone being exalted and praised?

The kabbalists of the sixteenth-century who lived in Safed used the image of Jacob’s ladder to describe the order of prayers in the siddur. Further, they helped us identify the psycho-spiritual reasons for this order, and it is a joyous endeavor to learn about it. They taught that each of the four letters of God’s ineffable Name represent the four rungs of life: body, emotion, intellect, and spirit. In turn, the order of prayers in the siddur follow these organic levels, and the petitioner is like one who climbs a ladder from earth to heaven. All siddurim follow a very similar pattern and order of prayers. Siddurim also include the innovations of these same kabbalists who created the Kaballat Shabbat and the Havdallah services, and who are responsible for some of the most beautiful liturgy in the siddur.

In the weekday morning service, for example, we wake up and begin with the rung of prayers concerning the body known as the B’rachot HaShachar, thanking the Holy One for permitting us to awaken, and for the proper functioning of our various body parts, including breath. This represents the lower hey of the Name representing the bodily level of life. Next, we move from acknowledgment to emotion-filled praise. This second rung in the service is known as the P’sukei D’Zimra, and many of the psalms are located there. This section represents the vav in Hashem’s Name and represents the emotional level of life. The third rung of the service is the Kriat Shema, which begins with the Barachu and continues with the blessings surrounding the Shema. On this level we move from praise to declaration. When the Shema is recited we declare that Adonai, whose Name mirrors the four levels of our lives, is an indivisible unity. This third section stands for the upper hey representing the intellect.

The fourth rung in the service is called by several names: the Amidah, Shemonah Esray, T’fillah, or just simply the Prayer. Our rabbis teach that if we climb the first three rungs of the ladder with concentration and joy we now can enter the gates where we can truly pray (i.e. ask the Creator to attend to our personal needs as sentient beings). This fourth rung corresponds to the yod of the Divine Name and represents soul level of life.

Through an inspired series of 18 benedictions we can actually feel what has been described as oneness or cleaving (d’vaykut) to the Holy One. A careful study of each level of the service reveals an exquisite internal four-rung ladder within each individual rung. In fact, each major prayer within each rung contains its own mini four-rung ladder. The effect of this knowledge during prayer can be kaleidoscopic, and is an emotionally thrilling experience. Prayer then becomes like a journey inside of a crystal, only this crystal is the essence of God’s own Being in whose image we are continually being created.

The image of Jacob’s ladder is not the only metaphor that has been used to describe the deep infrastructure of the prayerbook. In his Meta Siddur, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank writes, “The dynamic metaphor of climbing a ladder conveys that the davvenen is intended to facilitate a symphony of prayer states. Another possible metaphor (considered by Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and that I heard from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) is that of entering the Temple, visiting the Holy of Holies, and exiting the Temple. One may, nowadays, consider the recapitulation of the stages of evolution. I like to imagine blending all three metaphors: as one ascends the rungs of the ladder and enters ever deeper into the Temple, one finds oneself changing into a more and more evolved, complicated being.”

The relationship between the petitioner and the Holy One is traditionally compared to that of a parent and child, or between King and servant. Our sages ask us to think of the prayer service in the same way we think of a child needing something from his or her parent. The clever child doesn’t just ask for what he or she needs. First the child acknowledges how good it is to be alive, and to be in such a wonderfully designed body (Birkat HaShachar). Next, the child lavishes praises upon the father or mother (P’sukei D’Zimra). The loving parent now suspects that the child wants something, but is deeply flattered since the child is so sincere. Secretly, the parent wants the child to have what he or she needs, but also realizes how important it is for the child’s inner development to go through this process.

The child then makes the ultimate declaration that his or her parent is the only father or mother he will ever have (K’riat Shema). The father or mother joyously and humorously asks, “Okay, so what do you want? How much is it going to cost?” This, of course, invites the child to be direct in his or her petition. The child feels so at one with the parent, and the parent feels so at one with the child, that the asking and the receiving becomes the natural expression of their deep love for one another. So, it is with us as petitioners before the Living God. When we finally reach the point of asking (in the Amidah) our sages suggest that we should sincerely feel that we are as deeply connected to our Heavenly Father as we are our earthly parents.

Today, even as less masculine or hierarchical comparisons are being explored, the four-level infrastructure of the prayer service itself remains unchallenged. As a ladder for entry into the Heavenly realm each rung, and the rungs within each rung, have organic function. The rote recitation of prayers with congregants standing and sitting like actors taking cues is not what the sages of the Talmud ever expected from us as we talk to the Creator of the Universe. Prayer, they all taught, must have intention, or kavannah. The words must be said slowly enough to be both understood and felt, and may even be said in the vernacular if that makes comprehension easier.

From the introduction to “Ivdu et Hashem b’Simcha” a prayerbook for Renewal edited by Rabbi David Zaslow (shalomrav@aol.com)

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