I don't think I've sufficiently expressed the absurdity of our prayers. Let me illustrate with a story:
When the Baal Shem Tov was leader of the chassidim, whenever troubles befell them, he would pray and avert the harsh decrees from heaven. When the Baal Shem Tov passed on and his disciple, the great kabbalist, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritch, took over the leadership, he would similarly avert these decrees. When the Magid passed on, the most difficult persecutions of their leadership and of their cause began.
The students of the Magid, all of them great, enlightened masters, beseeched him to respond to them from his place in the world beyond. They pleaded, "As long as you were here, you interceded successfully on our behalf. Certainly, from your place in the next world you have yet greater power to intercede!"
The Magid responded to his disciples, "When I was below, I saw these things as harsh and cruel. But from my station up here, I only see the good in all of this. As Rabbi Akiva taught, all that the All-Merciful does is for the good. How could I pray to avert something I see as true goodness?"
His disciples then asked, "If so, our master, what about us? Should we also desist from praying that these decrees be averted?"
"No," the Magid responded. "Since in your world these appear to be evil, you must do everything in your power to avert them and alter the heavenly decree!"
The question screams out: If the Magid would not pray to avert true goodness, why should his students? If it is truly good, let them grin and bear it!
Let's travel a little further into this: The above story tells us that the view of the Magid from his station above is quite different from ours. Apparently there is more than one perspective on reality.
Even within our own world, we can see how space, time and attitude can effect perspective—to the point that two observers may see two diametrically opposite phenomena.
The image below is of two hybrid images. Look at it and note which face is pleasant and which is angry. Then step back about ten feet and see what happens as the images are blurred. Actually, you can simply squint to blur your vision, or sit back and take off your glasses.
View the image from close and then at a distance of 10 feet
Time can have a similar effect. A late autumn tree, bare of its leaves may not look as beautiful as the same tree in the spring. But imagine a time-lapse video of the tree's cycles, as it bursts into blossom, dons it greenery, only to shed its leaves in fiery colors, baring itself to the winter snow and then returning to blossom once again. Within that kinetic context, the naked, dry wood of a frozen tree becomes a crucial element in the drama of renewal.
Oak tree — the big view
And attitude as well: What is pain for one person is pleasure for another. Fasting is forbidden on Shabbat, because Shabbat is a day of rest and delight. Yet there's an exception: if a person has had a frightening dream, he's allowed to fast, because for him, fasting is pleasurable, eating is painful. You could say the same about roller-coaster rides, and life in the big city.
Now imagine this creation we call our world from the lookout balcony at the top, the view of its Creator. The view that understands where everything is going and why things have to be the way they are. It's magnificent and beautiful — all of it. As the prophet Jeremiah says, "Evil does not descend from Above." Evil only appears as you descend below.
As you descend, you see less and less of the big picture. What from above appeared as a harmonious whole begins to look like a mess of conflicting fragments. By the time you hit the basement — where we are — it's dark and ugly. Reality is distorted, nothing makes sense, darkness seems like light and light as darkness.
Each moment of life, taken on its own, is imprisoned. It is a fragment, and as such, orphaned from its meaning, like torn pages of a book scattered by the wind…But if you could see the entire picture as a whole, from beginning to end, the beauty would return to all of it…
I remember a music professor who would start the class by playing a chord on the piano and asking us to write down the notes. The chords became more and more sophisticated as the classes progressed: minor 9ths, suspended, augmented, 13ths ... Then, one day, he played the ugliest chord imaginable—and this time, not only were we asked to write the notes, but to tell him the era and composer, as well.
All were convinced it was post-Wagnerian. Most placed it as "modern ugly — likely from the 1920s." Several suggested Arnold Schönberg.
Then he played us the entire piece. It was a fugue from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The voices of the fugue fought their way into a crescendo of complexity culminating in the agonizing tension of that chord ... and then smoothly resolved back into the sweetest baroque harmony.
Of course, it was all beautiful. But the most beautiful was that which we had first heard as the most ugly.
From Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”, Vol. I (Preludio XXI)
So here we are, at rock bottom, suffering from all our circumstances because we can't figure out how on earth any of this could be good. We're helpless — this is an inherent deficiency in our design and vantage point. And the Mastermind of All Worlds turns to us from His penthouse panorama with banks of video monitors on every creature in the universe, and yells down into your pit, "So how's the weather down there? Any complaints?"
And this is mitzvah of tefillah! To "petition for all your needs with requests and supplications" three times a day!
It must be, then—because this is the only way out of our conundrum—that for whatever reason (or just out of pure desire), the Creator of this reality is interested in the experience from within, and not just from above. And He wants to bring the two into perfect union.
Tefillah, then, means a union of two worlds, two perspectives, two forms of consciousness: The view from Above unites with the view from within. And we are the matchmakers.
This is vital for us to know before we go any further into the spiritual ascent of prayer, mystic union and higher consciousness: The goal is not a jailbreak out of the dungeon of material existence. The goal is a marriage of two worlds—ours and His. Heaven on earth. Tefillah is where the two kiss.
We’ll journey deeper into this romance in the next installment. We’ll also see how this explains the enigmatic phrase that most prayer books direct you to say at some point or other:
In the name of the union of The Holy One, blessed be He, and His presence, to unite Yud-Hey with Vav-Hey in complete union, in the name of all Israel.
It’s not as mysterious as it sounds. Hang in there.