On Prayer

Prayer and Experiencing Divine Vitality

Rabbenu Yisrael ben Eliezer, commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), adapted Kabbalistic ideas in his mystical approach to prayer. At the core of his approach is the belief that all is encompassed by G•d.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the purpose of prayer is to penetrate physicality and have the experience of knowing the Divine vitality which infuses all things. To achieve this experience, as you will see in this sefer (book), requires the annihilation of the self through means such as con­templation that all is G•d. In this state, the ego is left behind and the soul soars to the upper worlds.

A foundation stone of the Baal Shem Tov’s approach to living life according to the dictates of the Torah was the importance of prayer above other religious duties, even over the study of the Torah. Making prayer of paramount importance was an innovation of the Baal Shem Tov over the way followed by the majority of Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe.

Prayer Through Attachment to God

Prior to the Baal Shem Tov, it was the common belief that for a person to learn how to pray with great love and fear, it was necessary to give one’s life over to the study of the Torah and the performance of Mitzvahs.

The Baal Shem Tov’s attitude towards prayer can best be understood canadian pharmacy website by his stress on the practice of deveikut, attach­ment to G•d. Briefly stated, the practice is that a person should always have G•d in their thoughts, seeing beneath appearances the Divine vitality which infuses all things. In other words, the only true reality is G•d. The material world, and, for that matter, the ‘upper spiritual worlds’ seem to be true reality. In fact, they are a kind of screen, which hides G•d from human eyes, but through which He can be seen if man’s spiritual gaze is properly directed. With proper use of prayer, one can see the infinite, Divine power as it is manifesting the creation.

To achieve the state of deveikut as practiced by the Baal Shem Tov, one strives to attain the state of ‘bittul ha-yesh,” ‘the annihilation of somethingness.’ In this state, there is an awareness that G•d alone is true reality and that all finite things are dissolved in His unity. In the state of bittul ha-yesh, the soul can soar to G•d while the ego is left behind. This state is especially to be cultivated at the time of prayer. Thus, Hasidic prayer is essentially an exercise in forsaking the world and abandoning the lower self.

Prayer and Influence in the Spiritual Realm

Another aspect of prayer stressed by the Baal Shem Tov was that prayer influenced the upper spiritual worlds. This principle was accepted without qualification by the Hasidic Rebbes that followed in the path of the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, a very close disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, wrote “that this is why the prayers have to be recited verbally and it is not sufficient for a man to only think the prayers in his mind. Although G•d knows all thoughts, when a man gives verbal expression to his prayers he provides a ‘vessel’ through which Divine grace can flow into the material world. If the prayers are only thought, the Divine grace would only be capable of flowing into the spiritual ‘vessels’ provided by thought.”

Prayer For the Sake of God

The Baal Shem Tov also explained to his followers that prayer is for the sake of G•d. More specifically, prayer is for the sake of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence; sometimes identified as the sephirah of Malkut or Knesset Israel [The collectivity of Jewish souls]). This concept is treated throughout classical Hasidic writings.

An example of the principle ‘prayer is for the sake of G•d’ is that a man should consider that whatever happens to him happens concurrently to the Shechinah. If the Hasid finds himself sick, for example, he should reflect that G•d wants him to be well again, and until he recovers from his illness, G•d’s will is unfulfilled. His purpose, then, in praying for good health and a speedy recovery should be so that the Shechinah will no longer be unfulfilled.

This concept can be understood by how the Baal Shem Tov solved the contradiction between two passages in the Zohar. In one passage, it is said that whoever does not pray for his sustenance daily is of little faith. In another passage, scorn is poured on those who bark like dogs begging for food. According to the Baal Shem Tov there really is no contradiction. In one case, a man should not beg for his food solely for his own sake. The experience of lack of food is from the need of a man’s vital soul for Divine vitality. Since this vitality is, in reality, that of the Shechinah, he should pray for the pain ex­perienced by his vital soul, which is another way of saying that he should pray for the sake of the Shechinah.

Prayer : An Innate Desire

G•d makes those who fear Him to have a desire, for prayer is called ‘desire.’ G•d puts this desire to pray for something into man’s heart because the G•d-fearing man would have no desire to petition G•d for anything since ‘there is no want to them that fear Him’ [Psalm 34:10]. The G•d-fearing man says ‘enough’ to whatever G•d gives him. Consequently, G•d puts the thought of prayer into man’s heart for He desires man’s prayers. Therefore, the verse concludes: ‘and He hears their cry and saves them’ [Psalm 145:19].

Rebbe Reb Dov Ber (later known as the Mezritcher Maggid and the successor to the Baal Shem Tov) taught the following teaching: “Behold, when a man prays, G•d forbid that he should direct all his desire towards that corporeal thing for which he asks. Rather, he should have the following in mind. Our Rabbis teach that the cow wishes to feed the calf more than the calf wishes to be fed. This means that a giver has a greater desire to give than the beneficiary has the desire to receive. So it is with G•d. His delight in benefiting His creatures is greater than the delight felt by the people He benefits.”

In other words, petitionary prayer should be to please G•d in His role as Giver. Knowing that G•d has this desire to give, the worshipper should ask, but never for his own sake. The paradox of petitionary prayer is that the man’s request is real and that the satisfaction of the man’s needs desired. But the true worshipper sees it all as the fulfillment of G•d’s purpose. In the act of receiving, or requesting to receive, the righteous man becomes a giver because he assists G•d in attaining His desire to be a giver.

Prayer: A Manifestation of the Inner Heart

Since the righteous pray for the sake of the Shechinah, their prayers for particular things such as health, sustenance and family are not for the different satisfac­tions of fulfilling their own needs but are all for the lack in the Shechinah as evidenced by their own needs. The result is that all petitionary prayer, no matter how varied in relation to its particular requests, is basically one simple prayer, that the lack in the Shechinah be filled.

G•d searches each person’s heart and knows all its secrets. Since it is the heart that He really wants, prayers that are recited with strong concentration and are inwardly sincere, are very pleasing to Him and therefore these prayers are answered.

The holy Baal Shem Tov emphasized that G•d paid special attention to the spiritual service of an ordinary, but devout man. Those who follow(ed) the Baal Shem Tov’s path with spiritual aspirations weren’t satisfied with simple, thoughtless prayer. Rather, they approached Hasidic prayer, as taught by Rabbenu Baal Shem Tov, as a rigorous, spiritual exercise with the goal of causing the self to be transcended so the soul can ascend to the spiritual worlds.