Not long ago, I googled the question ‘What is prayer?’ I got some lovely answers. ‘The act of communicating with a deity,’ said one source. Another source said that ‘prayer is the practice of the presence of God.’ Lovely! Another Catholic source said that prayer is ‘…a form of … talking to God or to the saints.” What struck me as most interesting about googling prayer was that it wasn’t until the fourth page of google entries that I came to a Jewish definition of prayer. I saw lots of Christian definitions, lots of New Age definitions, Muslim definitions, Sikh definitions. Finally, I came a Jewish definition that simply referred to prayer as ‘a pouring out of the heart.’ A nice definition! A good start. We can all sense, in all religions, that prayer is some form of communication between the heart and the Divine. We all can sense that prayer is deeply personal. But what exactly makes prayer Jewish prayer? So many of us come to synagogue wondering about Jewish prayer. We open our siddur. Ancient and complex prayers are there. Words of prayer to an exalted God mixed with humble supplication on behalf of the people of Israel abound. We can all intuit that this can be a rich spiritual experience, but most of us fail to find the pouring out of the heart, the sense that we are communicating with a Divinity that we can believe in. So today I would like to begin by acknowledging that Jewish prayer is harder to define than prayer in other traditions. Jewish prayer is an outpouring of the heart, and it is communication with the Divine, but it is also more than that. Jewish prayer is T’filah, which comes from the Hebrew root ‘palal,’ which means to judge or to stand Present for someone or something, or even more, to stand in awe of someone or something. ‘To pray’ in Hebrew is Lehitpalel, a reflexive verb that means to stand in awe, or in the Presence of Yourself.
In this week’s parashah, Jacob runs away from home, fearing for his life after he has stolen the blessing of the firstborn from his brother Esau. Alone and afraid in the dark night, he goes to sleep with nothing but a stone beneath his head for a pillow. And he has a dream: a ladder extends from the Earth to the Heavens “V’hinei malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo,” and behold, angels of God rising up and descending on the ladder (Gen. 28:12). And the Voice of God speaks to him from this vision, and reassures him that no matter where he goes, God will be with him, and he will return to the Land of Israel and his descendants will be blessed. And Jacob awakens from this dream and says “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (Gen. 28:16) It’s an extraordinary moment in the Torah. His vision is all about how HaMakom HaZeh, this place: the Land of Israel, this spot—a spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—was the “sha’ar haShamayim,” the gateway to heaven where heaven and earth are linked. As the future father of the twelve tribes of Israel, it is fitting for him to be the living link to the Land of Israel, to the holiest spot in the Land for all future generations of his offspring.
The Midrash sees another dimension to this amazing vision: In the Hebrew, it says that the angels were olim v’yordim bo, rising up and descending—the Hebrew “bo” literally means, “on him.” “R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Yannai disagreed: One maintained: [The angels] were ascending and descending the ladder; while the other said: they were ascending and descending on him--on Jacob! The first view is clear. But that they were ascending and descending on Jacob must mean that some were exalting him and others chiding him, dancing, leaping, and maligning him. … it is you [said the angels] whose features are engraved on high; they ascended on high and saw his features and they descended bellow and found him sleeping. This can be compared to a king [whose image] was found sitting in his council chamber in judgment, while at the same time he lay asleep in the corridor.” (Breshit Rabbah 68:18)
It’s a strange and cryptic midrash! Don’t think of a heavenly ladder, says R. Yannai. Think of the angels going up and down Jacob’s body! And they’re not gliding angelically. They’re jumping on him, kicking him yelling ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ Up in heaven, says the midrash, the angels can see an image of Jacob’s face as the very image of humankind perfected. And here he is on earth, sleeping like a shzlub! What’s your problem, Jacob? Wake up already! This midrash hints a meaning of great depth for us that unlocks the secret of Jewish prayer, of T’filah, itself. There is a lofty, perfect Jacob in heaven, but there is also a very human and fallible Jacob here on earth. And in this dream, in this image, both natures, the lofty and the humble, exist together in the same moment…
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us the following statement: “Wherever you find the strength of the Holy One, praised be God, you find his Humility…This is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is Elohei Ha’Elohim, Va’Adonai Ha’Adonim, ‘is God supreme and Lord supreme, ‘HaEl HaGadol v’hagibor v’hanora, ‘the great, the mighty and the awesome God!’, but says right after that, ‘Oseh mishpat y’tom v’almanah,’ (Deut. 10:17-18)but [God also] upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow.” (B. Talmud Megila 31a) Here, too, just like in Jacob’s ladder dream, there is the realm of the heavenly heights, and the realm of the lowly and humble here on Earth. In Jacob’s dream, it is Jacob himself, according to the Midrash, who is both exalted in heaven and humble here on earth. Here in the Talmud, God, too is both exalted in heaven, and with the humble and powerless on earth.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, once taught that if we want to understand the greatness of God, we must understand that everything of this earth is like a mirror image of the Divine. He taught that God’s greatness and majesty IS God’s humility: they’re not separate. Where do we first meet God in the Torah? The book of Genesis says ‘V’Ruach Elohim m’rachefet al pnei hamayim,” the spirit of God hovered on the surface of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Just as the water always seeks the lowest place, so too does God. Find the lowest, simplest place, and you will find the True majesty of God!
Again and again, our tradition reminds us that the highest heights and the lowest lows bear a connection that we ourselves must bridge if we are to awaken to our highest humanity and the highest Divinity itself! Another Midrash: When Jacob wakes up from his dream, the Hebrew reads: “Vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato,” “And Jacob awoke from his sleep.” (Gen. 28:16). The Midrash playfully suggests another reading. Read it like this: “Vayikatz Ya’akov MiMishnato,” And Jacob awoke from his Mishnah!” The word ‘Mishnah,’ of course refers to the legal teachings of the Torah. So the midrash suggests that Yaakov awoke not from sleep, but from his study. The Chasidic commentary the Ma’or VaShemesh explains the meaning of this Midrash: that, of course, Torah-study is critically important for any Jew, but if we move ONLY to the lofty realm of the intellectual, the abstract, and we abandon the deeper yearnings of the heart, then we are not fully whole.
So now let’s put it all together: those angels came down and kicked and jumped on Jacob and said ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ not just from sleep. Wake up to the fullness of your condition, Jacob! Wake up to the fact that your very countenance is up there in heaven, next to the very throne of God, Jacob! But it wasn’t just that. The angels were olim v’yordim, they were going up and down on Jacob’s body: from the intellect down to the heart (and below!) and up again, back and forth! Wake up, Jacob, from the lofty realm of pure mind and reason and intellect. Wake up to the outcry of your heart! Wake up to the deepest, lowest, and most humble recesses of your soul down on earth too, Jacob! Wake up to all of it! This is prayer!
T’filah, Jewish prayer is Lehitpalel: to Wake up, to wonder at yourSelf! To pray is to be the angels olim v’yordim, going up and down, and wondering at the fact that our very countenance, our very face is up there in Heaven with God, and yet we are down here, so very limited, so very afraid and alone and fallible here on earth. We are, at once, in both places in the very same instant! And Jacob woke up and said, ‘Achen Yesh Adonai baMakom Hazeh, v’Anochi Lo Yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it,” I didn’t know that God was here, in THIS place too! God isn’t just in the heavens above, far above and beyond me. God is with me, down here, in the dark night, alone and afraid and huddling to sleep at night! God is here, in my mind, my intellect, my highest thoughts of prayer, yes. But God is also down here, baMakom hazeh, in this place, down here in the most vulnerable places in my heart. God trembles in core of my being together with me as I fear the unknown. God is down with me in my basest yearning and desires, in my rage and in my hopes and my strength and my love. God is with my highest and most noble achievements, and down low with me in my most desperate moments of failure.
So it is that in T’filah, we express our willingness to go up and down , to give Voice to each and every part of our Being, ourselves, before the Ultimate. And it is for this reason that our T’filot are so manifold and complex and textured and varied. We utter the words of the Sh’ma, and we are in the loftiest place of Awareness of the Divine, high up, with our countenance in heaven as we say those words. But then, we begin a descent into our humanity. As we say the Hashkiveinu at night, we feel, like Jacob before us, alone and afraid in the dark night, and we give voice to our yearnings to be safe and protected. In the ‘Amidah, we descend even further into our yearnings and our pain: we scream out in anger against the Malshinim, the heretics and others who speak against our people, and we don’t hold back our basest anger and rage. But then, we rise up again, to the heights of joy and gratitude for the ‘nisecha shebechol yom imanu,’ for the miracles that somehow are always around us in every moment of life, sustaining us. And even after such heights, we descend to the very precipice of despair again, as we call out ‘Shomer Yisrael,’ to the Guardian of Israel to please sustain what remnant of our people is left in this world of so much loss and devastation.
Every rung of that ladder arrays itself before us in T’filah. We’re not just ‘talking to God.’ We are awakening each level of our heart and our soul. We’re not denying any part of ourselves a chance to speak and to sing out to the Ultimate, and before our own Awareness. We’re journeying up and down the ladder to Heaven, and discovering ‘Achen Yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh,” that there isn’t any place in the world, any dark corner of our very being, where we cannot stand in wonder of the Truth that God is in this place, in our hearts, and we never even knew it! May we all find our way into T’filah, and in so doing, may each of us be the Sha’ar HaShamayim, the very gateway to Heaven itself.