Prayer Part X : The Power Of The Words (Edited Transcript)
This is part ten in a series of discussions on prayer.
Last week we talked about the spiritual engineering of the world. We explained, based on the teachings of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, that G-d has set up the world in such a way that when we pray, we bring His presence closer and enable His blessing to overflow into our lives and into the world.
Rav Chaim quotes an interesting phrase from the Zohar – the foremost mystical work of Judaism – which says that when we pray to G-d we become His “partners in Creation.” A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that Creation was not just a one-time event that happened long ago and set the world in motion; rather, the world is constantly being re-created. It is dynamic, not static, and science confirms this: If you look at a table, it looks solid and static. But we know that a solid-looking table is actually comprised of atoms whose electrons are moving at a very high speed. Although the table appears static, there are actually millions of electrons moving in orbit. This accords with what Judaism says: the world is dynamic and is renewed every day. As we say in our morning prayers, Hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit, we thank Hashem for renewing Creation every single day.
G-d did not create the world and leave it to run on its own; He re-creates it all the time. He is the source of energy that continually sustains the world, and if He were to withdraw His energy for even one moment, the entire universe would implode. As we mentioned previously, the connection between Hashem and the physical universe is like the connection between the soul and the body. The soul is the life force of the body; if the soul leaves the body, the body dies and begins to decay. So, too, the life force of the physical universe is Hashem Himself. And the mechanism by which we ensure that Hashem’s energy sustains this physical world is the mitzvot that we do, especially the mitzvah of prayer.
Our Sages teach us that when we daven to Hashem, we bring His presence even closer to this physical universe, which causes an overflowing of blessing. The blessings we experience in this world are directly correlated with the level of connection between Hashem and the physical universe – the more His energy is present, the more blessing there is. When we pray, we are bringing Him closer to the physical universe. In this way we are considered His partners in Creation; we are literally sustaining the world with our prayers.
Sustaining G-d’s presence with the words of prayer
When we do mitzvot, we are essentially fulfilling what G-d told us to do. G-d set out a certain number of commandments for us to fulfil, and by following His instructions we draw His presence into the world and increase its sanctity and spiritual energy.
With prayer, our involvement as His partners is, explains Rav Reuven Leuchter, even more direct and powerful – even more so than with learning Torah. When we learn Torah, it is Hashem’s Torah we are learning; He authored it. But the Siddur was authored by the Jewish people, not Hashem. It was written by Anshey Knesset HaGedola, the Men of the Great Assembly – an organisation comprised of the greatest Sages of the Second Temple Era, as well as some of the last of the Prophets. They were people of prophetic insight – what we call Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit – and with this insight they were able to craft the exact words necessary for the spiritual engineering of the world.
This is how we become Hashem’s partners. It is the most direct form of partnership because we created the Siddur, which has the power to strengthen Hashem’s connection to this physical world and thereby bring His presence and blessing into it. Hashem established the spiritual laws of nature, and the Men of the Great Assembly had the prophetic insight and understanding to compose the Siddur in such a way that it would be in harmony with these spiritual laws.
Each time we say the words of the siddur, we are strengthening the forces of holiness and blessing in the universe by bringing in G-d’s presence. The key to this, says Rav Chaim, is the text itself. The Hebrew words of our Siddur have tremendous power. Rav Chaim writes that there is a mystical power unleashed in the world when we say the Hebrew words of the prayers, which were the original words that the Men of the Great Assembly composed. And so, even though technically one can fulfil the mitzvah of prayer by praying in any language one understands, I encourage everyone to learn how to pray in Hebrew. These words have a particular power and they should be the focus of our concentration. This is why it so important to learn the Hebrew words, and if we don’t know their meaning, we should look them up because they have a special spiritual power.
Rav Yosef Karo, one of the great halachic authorities of the late 1400s and early 1500s, is best known for his codification of the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law. What is less known about Rav Yosef Karo is that he wrote another book, called Magid Meysharim. An angel appeared to him and taught him, and he wrote these lessons down. One of the things he wrote was the advice the angel gave him about how to pray. He said, when you pray, be very careful not to think about anything else, not even about mitzvot. The focus of your prayers has to be Hashem and, especially, the words of the prayers themselves. We have to focus our full energy on the words of the prayers.
Of course, one can talk to Hashem in any language, and the Siddur can be – and has been – translated into other languages. But there is a special power and spiritual energy in the Hebrew words of the Siddur; they are the formula for how to communicate with G-d. Apart from the historical significance of the fact that we are using the same prayers that generations of Jews have said before us, there is a spiritual energy inherent in these words, and it is this spiritual energy that enables us to have a direct, tangible impact on the world.
This touches on one of the most interesting dimensions of Jewish prayer. Conventional wisdom dictates that prayer is about inspiration; and for many people inspiration by definition must be spontaneous. But Judaism has a completely different way of looking at it: Inspiration does not come from spontaneity, but from having the right frame of mind and the appropriate emotions. We cannot always rely on our spontaneity, and therefore we rely on the spiritual insight of our great Prophets and Sages – the Men of the Great Assembly.
We have a long established prayer book which the Jewish people have been reciting for generations; and each one of us has been saying these same prayers throughout our lives, every single day. The fact that we pray from the set text of the Siddur is fundamental to the Jewish approach to prayer. Why is it so important to have a text to pray from?
As we mentioned, there are certain spiritual laws of nature and these prayers were designed to correlate with these laws. They have a spiritual power and an energy that other words do not have.
But there is another dimension to it, and that is the compelling power of transcending ourselves. Great people are able to transcend themselves, while small people are not; they remain selfish. Sometimes we get caught up in ourselves, and if we were to formulate our prayers spontaneously, they would reflect only our own interests, and how we feel at that moment. If we want to become greater people, if we want to step outside of ourselves, we must glean our frame of reference and draw inspiration from the words of our great Prophets and Sages, uttered by generations of Jews before us.
The power of the Siddur is not only in the spiritual energy it creates, but in its emotional and historic significance. When we pray from the Siddur, which generations of Jews have cried over and have been inspired by, we transcend ourselves. We are then able to approach our dialogue with G-d not in a selfish, personal capacity, based on who we are and how we feel at that moment, but in a transcendent, collective capacity; we step outside of ourselves and become uplifted by it. Our prayers direct us to a different place, to a realm of higher spiritual energy.
In order to concentrate during davening, we must focus on the words. There is great power in these words, and we need to understand them and become familiar with them. It is precisely by familiarising ourselves with these words that we glean our inspiration. When we learn the meaning of the words, they have the power to transform the way we look at the world.
Of course, while focusing on the words, we must also realise that we are standing before Hashem. That, too, is an important aspect of the prayer experience. The minimum definition of having kavana – devotion – in prayer consists of two things, and the two must work in combination: the meaning of the words, and the awareness that we are standing before Hashem. It is the combination of the holy Siddur’s words, along with the realisation that we have the awesome privilege of standing before the King of all Kings, that give prayer its power and energy.