This is part nine in a series of discussions on prayer.
Until now we have been talking about prayer from a psychological, historical, and even from a spiritual perspective. Now, I would like to share with you an insight into prayer from what is called chochmat hanistar – the hidden wisdom of Torah, which is contained in the Zohar and the mystical writings of our sages.
There is a whole branch of Torah philosophy which is based on our mystical sources. It differs from the philosophy found in some of the other writings in that it focuses on what we can call the “spiritual mechanics” of the world. In particular I would like to share with you thoughts from Rav Chaim Volozhiner, one of our great sages from the last few hundred years, who was a prominent student of the Vilna Gaon and the author of Nefesh HaChaim.
In the second section of Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim discusses the concept of prayer from a mystical point of view. Just as we have the physical concept of engineering, where the principles of maths and science are employed to construct cities, and the laws of nature are employed to effect positive change in the world, so too we have spiritual mechanics – and specifically prayer – which underpin the world.
How do these spiritual mechanics work?
G-d and the soul: some common traits
Rav Chaim Volozhiner quotes the Gemara (Berachot, 10a) which says that G-d and the soul that we have within us have a lot in common. Obviously, nothing is comparable to Hashem, for He is the Creator of everything. Nevertheless the Gemara says that the soul and Hashem share a lot in common – specifically in their relationship with the physical, as we will see shortly.
The Gemara lists five things which G-d and the soul have in common:
1. Just as Hashem inhabits the entire world, so too the neshama fills the entire body.
2. Hashem sees but cannot be seen. So too the neshama sees but cannot be seen.
3. Just as Hashem sustains the entire world, so too the neshama sustains the body. Once the neshama is no longer in the body, the body dies. Likewise Hashem sustains the world, and if He were to leave it even for an instant, it would implode.
4. In the same way that Hashem is pure, so too the neshama is pure.
5. Lastly, in the same way that Hashem dwells in the innermost chambers, so too the soul is hidden in the innermost chambers of a person.
The neshama, the soul, is housed in the body, and yet they are completely different; the soul is spiritual while the body is physical. This is the wonder of the human being, which we proclaim when we say Asher Yatzar, the blessing thanking Hashem after going to the bathroom. We say, rofeh col basar umafli la’asot, “Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.” The human body is indeed a wondrous creation. The Rema explains that this wondrous creation refers to the fact that the body and the soul are intertwined into one being. And just as the soul sustains the physical body, so too G-d sustains the physical universe. To borrow human terms, the “soul” of this vast physical universe is Hashem.
Sustaining the “soul” of the world
Taking this one step further, Rav Chaim Volozhiner points out the following: the relationship between the body and the soul is maintained by physical nourishment – food. A person who stops eating or drinking will eventually die of starvation or thirst. Paradoxically, the very physical action of eating food somehow strengthens the connection between the body and the soul. This is the incredible mystery of human existence: the body and soul are intertwined into one being and that being is sustained by physical food. The key to life is the continued connection between body and soul.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner says that the connection between G-d and this physical universe works in the same way. When the connection between Hashem and the physical universe is strengthened, G-d’s blessing permeates the world. And when the connection between Hashem and the physical universe is weakened, the entire foundation of existence is weakened, because Hashem is the source of all blessing and everything in Creation.
This is how Rav Chaim explains the word baruch, “blessed,” which we say in all of our blessings and in our daily davening – Baruch ata Hashem, “Blessed are you Hashem.” What does baruch mean? How can we, mortal beings, give Hashem a blessing?
Rav Chaim explains, based on the mystical sources, that baruch means that G-d is “the source of all blessing.” We are not blessing G-d; rather, we are declaring that He is the source of all blessing, and by declaring that, we bring His blessing into the world.
How do we maintain G-d’s connection to the universe? As we said before, physical food ensures that the soul stays in the human body. What “spiritual food” ensures that Hashem – the “soul” of the universe – stays connected to the world?
Rav Chaim explains that this “spiritual food” is Torah and mitzvot. The more mitzvot we do and the more we serve Hashem, the more the connection between Hashem and His world is strengthened and deepened. And the more that connection is strengthened and deepened, the more blessing there is in the world.
This is why, says Rav Chaim, the sacrifices in the Temple were called korbani lachmi, “My sacrifice, which is my bread.” It is “the bread of Hashem” because through it – i.e., through serving Hashem – we ensure that He is connected to this world. Any mitzvah we do – whether it’s learning Torah, giving charity, being kind to people, keeping Shabbat or kashrut – strengthens the connection between Hashem and this world and brings down His blessing. And the mitzvah that draws Hashem’s presence deeper into this world and allows for the outpouring of His blessing more powerfully than any other mitzvah is tefillah – prayer.
When we pray to Hashem, we are not only connecting with Him but we are actually impacting on the mechanics of the world. This goes back to the beginning of our discussion which makes the philosophy of the nistar, the hidden parts of Torah, so important in this context. Prayer impacts on us not only subjectively; rather, objectively, it changes the whole world. There is a “spiritual engineering” taking place when we pray, which changes the dynamics of the universe. It brings Hashem closer to this physical universe and enables an outpouring of His blessing. Hashem is the source of all blessing and all life, and so the more connected He is with the physical universe, the more blessing there will be in it.
Maintaining G-d’s connection with the world
Hashem has set up the world in such a way that His connection with the physical world is sustained through Torah and mitzvot; and particularly through the mitzvah of prayer, we strengthens the connection between Hashem and His world and enable the outpouring of His blessing.
How exactly does this work?
Our prayers were crafted by the greatest spiritual engineers of all time – Anshei Knesset HaGedola, the Men of the Great Assembly. They designed our prayers in such a way that they have the maximum spiritual impact on the world. Rav Chaim explains that when we utter the words of the prayers, we have an impact on the world and are able to change it. Even though we cannot see this impact, it is still taking place. When we pray, we are actually making the world a better place as we are strengthening the connection between Hashem and the world and thereby bringing the Source of all blessing closer into our own lives and into the world at large.
This is why, says Rav Chaim, the key to concentration in davening is to focus on the words. These ancient words, crafted by the greatest spiritual engineers of all time, have a special power and spiritual energy.
This gives us a completely different perspective on prayer. Not only does prayer impact on us subjectively – whether psychologically, emotionally or spiritually – but objectively it has an impact on the world at large.
This is how Rav Chaim explains the verse regarding the creation of Adam and Eve, which says vayehi ha’adam l’nefesh chaya, “and man became a living soul.” It should have said, vayehi ba’adam nefesh chaya, “and there was within man a living soul.” But, says Rav Chaim, not only does man have a living soul within him but he himself is “the soul” of the entire world. There is a vast spiritual universe that is far more complex than the physical universe we know, and every good deed that we do and every prayer that we say has an impact throughout the spiritual universe.
We human beings are the soul of this world and as such we have a tremendous impact. Our prayers and good deeds impact upon the whole world for the good because they strengthen the connection between Hashem and His universe, which allows for an outpouring of His blessing into the world.