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Making Sense of It All

Making Sense of It All

The true essence of prayer


“Mr. Trout,” I said, “I am a novelist, and I created you for use in my books.”

“Pardon me?” he said.

“I’m your Creator,” I said. “You’re in the middle of a book right now—close to the end of it, actually.”

Drawing Hands by M. C. Escher
Drawing Hands by M. C. Escher

“Um,” he said.

“Are there any questions you’d like to ask?”

“Pardon me?” he said.

“Feel free to ask anything you want—about the past, about the future,” I said. “There’s a Nobel Prize in your future.”

“A what?” he said.

“A Nobel Prize in medicine.”

“Huh,” he said. It was a noncommittal sound.

“I’ve also arranged for you to have a reputable publisher from now on. No more beaver books for you.”

“Um,” he said.

“If I were in your spot, I would certainly have lots of questions,” I said.

“Do you have a gun?” he said.

I laughed there in the dark, tried to turn on the light again, activated the windshield washer again. “I don’t need a gun to control you, Mr. Trout. All I have to do is write down something about you, and that’s it.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wasn’t the first instance of an author mixing his own reality with his fantasy-reality. In writing the first European novel, Miguel Cervantes (a son of two crypto-Jews) had Don Quixote and Sancho Panza step out of their world into his own and back again several times. It’s likely, though, that the first literary instance is in the Book of Exodus:

And Moses returned to G‑d and said: “Please! This people has committed a grave sin. They have made themselves a god of gold. And now, if You forgive their sin—; but if not, erase me now from Your book which You have written.”

And G‑d said to Moses: “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!”1

Yes, we are all characters in G‑d’s story. All He has to do is “write something about us, and that’s it.” Or erase something. He doesn’t even need a pen, or an eraser, or a word processor. Just one awesome imagination. “For He spoke, and it was.”

Yet it seems that G‑d is not satisfied with imagining. He desires to experience this world He has made from within. Take a look at how Rabbi Infinity presents this idea in part two of his Isifier Tutorial (you can find the kernel of this idea in my discussion of simulation games, The Real G‑d Game):

KabbalaToons: Isifier Tutorial—Investmentization

Dual Personality

What do metafiction and vicarious experience have to do with prayer? Well, in the last installment of this series, I promised to explain the enigmatic declaration found in most of our prayer books, “In the name of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, to unite Yud-Hei with Vav-Hei in complete union, in the name of all Israel.” Now I think we’re about ready.

In Siddur Tehillat Hashem
In Siddur Tehillat Hashem

First off, the two facets of G‑d that are one:

When we discuss G‑d as the Creator, wholly transcendent of His creation, we call Him the Holy One, blessed be He (in Hebrew, Hakadosh, baruch Hu). Holy—kadosh in Hebrew—means just that: removed, special, outside and beyond all else. In Yiddish, that’s Eibishter—which translates as the One Above. So I think I’ll stick to that translation here. This aspect of G‑d is also represented by the first two letters of His name, the letters yud י and hei ה.

Limiting G‑d to the above and beyond is a serious error—one that sits at the roots of polytheism, since that distance creates a void for a pantheon of little delegate gods to mix in. Rather, in classic Jewish belief, G‑d is also found immanently within His creation as a whole and within each created being individually.

To a degree, we can relate to that: when we fashion a work of art, we sometimes feel as though we’ve put our soul into that work. The story is told of the Maggid of Mezeritch, that he once held a silver goblet and remarked that he felt the artisan was blind in one eye. I can tell you that when a lousy copyeditor starts playing with my writing, I feel like he’s sticking pins in my right arm—sometimes yet closer.

Our creations, however, are made from pre-existing materials. The Ultimate Creator manufactures the raw materials Himself—out of absolutely nothing but His own imagination. If so, if He were not within them, not only would they not fly, swim, think or breathe—they would not even exist.

One Above:

transcendence; beyond & aloof


immanence; here, now & within

That aspect of G‑d is what we call the Divine Presence—Shechinah in Hebrew. That’s a very important word when discussing prayer. The Shechinah is sometimes described as the feminine aspect of G‑d, and all of tefillah is about the Shechinah bonding with the One Above, reuniting the last two letters of G‑d’s name, vav ו and hei ה, with the first two letters.

There is no place where the Shechinah is not found, although there are places where the Shechinah shines with greater intensity than in others. There are places, we say, where the Shechinah must be—as a sort of self-imposed exile. And there are places where She is because that is where She wants to be. Obviously She is those places much more openly.

The pre-eminent manifestation of the Shechinah in this world is within the human consciousness. G‑d made a being “in His image”—i.e. a self-conscious, ego-laden being—and breathed His own consciousness into it.

In the following ambitious, yet never-completed comic strip, Jay gets a mortal’s taste of G‑d-consciousness. Not just as the Transcendent Creator and Master of all, but as the divine breath of life He blew from His innermost essence into the human being. Now it’s up to Jay to overcome this bifurcation of his persona, to somehow bring the two minds into sync with one another. To make two experiences into one.

Click on the image to enlarge Click on the image to enlarge

The Romance

An embrace, a kiss & a communion of souls You can read about Jay’s fate in two different versions of the story: Tohu Wars and The Tefillin Files. For G‑d, the union He is seeking happens in three forms: through Torah, through a mitzvah, and through prayer. It’s much like a love affair.

  • When we perform a mitzvah, the One Above and the Shechinah (played by us) are united in a kinetic activity within the material world. Think of an embrace uniting two bodies.
  • When we study Torah, the words of the Shechinah (spoken through our lips) are the words of the One Above. Think of a kiss, uniting two mouths.
  • And when we pray to Him, the Shechinah and the One Above are in intimate union in the deepest recesses of the spirit, sharing their very souls with one another. Think of mental and soulful communion with another, uniting two spirits.

The mitzvah of prayer as it emerges from the Torah is simply that: whenever there is something in your heart that you must share, you share it with Him, heart to heart. In that way, your heart and His heart have become one.

After all, the Torah never says, “Thou shalt pray.” But it does say to “serve G‑d with all your heart.” How do you serve G‑d with your heart? “Simple!” the sages say. “Pray to Him.”

Meaning that when your heart bursts with pain, pour it out to Him. When it yearns, speak to Him about that for which you yearn. When your heart is broken, ask Him to mend it. When your heart feels empty, ask Him to fill it. Wherever your heart is at, whatever it is being, connect that to His Being. Make your heart His sanctuary, the place where you find Him.

i speak to You

Now pick up a Jewish prayer book—whichever version you want—and make a quick survey. What is the most common word in these prayers? No, it’s not G‑d. Neither is it please. Or sorry. Look again: It’s You—with a capital Y. If your prayer book uses thou, I give you permission to change all such instances to You. Because all of Jewish prayer is about one thing alone: i commune with You.

If that is the only mental focus you have throughout your prayers, you’re doing fine. If it’s missing, the whole essence of prayer is missing. Prayer is a union of these two consciousnesses, that which you feel within you, and that which you feel transcends you.

Once that has occurred, once that union is made, everything is transformed. That is why, unlike studying Torah or performing mitzvahs, prayer has the power to actually change the material world—to heal the sick, to cause rain to fall, to alter the flow of commerce. It is because the union of prayer is so deep, so intimate, of such an essence-level, that it elicits radical, unprecedented change.

After all, a prayer is a request, “Yehi Ratzon”—to bring a new will into existence. A will has already been drawn into the supernal sphere of Divine Wisdom (chochmah), and that wisdom requires, in accordance with the rules of Torah, that where there is a fault, there is suffering —because the fault causes suffering, may G‑d protect us.

However, through a prayer, “Yehi Ratzon,” a new will is drawn out from a realm beyond chochmah. From that place, there is unadulterated compassion, unaffected by our faults.

—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812)2

Coming Up

As time passed, prayer had to become formalized and institutionalized, to ensure that every person would be encouraged three times a day to share his or her inner thoughts with the One Above. Since we’re not always in the mood to form immediate communion with the “One who spoke and the world came into being,” the Men of the Great Assembly—a council of sages at the time of the Babylonian exile that included several prophets—created a structure for us, a kind of ladder to climb up to that point each day. Over the generations that structure has been enhanced and modified, yet always upon the same fundamental framework.

In the next installment, we’ll get a picture—a multimedia one—of the form and symmetry of that ladder, gaining an overview and an understanding of the order of the morning prayers.

In the meantime, two more articles you’ll want to read to help absorb these ideas: A metaphor from the world of music, in What’s the Point of Complaining to G‑d?. And another one from the world of drama in What’s With Praying to a King?

Torah Ohr 42b.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles February 7, 2016

For Leah Just so I can understand: Did you go through the series from the beginning? Is this the first installment that you found confusing? Reply

Leah washington February 7, 2016

overview and guide or in depth concepts I had difficulty following the flow of this. Although I certain see points were made I think it could be organized in a more coherent way so the reader has an idea where things are going. Clearer intros to the media and the purpose and connection to the material would be helpful. I think the heading of "overview and guide" to prayer makes this one misleading. In depth analysis would be more accurate. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 16, 2011

we wandered through the wilderness Hi, the Jewish story, that is about Exodus, is about wandering and it lasted a long time. Moses never quite made it to the Promised Land, but a friend of mine, pointed out last night that Ruth did. We're all headed that way, meaning towards something that feels like a promise, something better.

All stories do seem to have echoic connects with all Biblical stories, and so it is we reframe them, constantly, trying to understand what is buried within. It's not clear, but then again, do we really want the mystery to be totally revealed. Maybe G_d loves mystery stories!

It's hidden, and yet when we make life discoveries, what we find has always been right here, for the taking. So it seems we're being led, towards these discoveries, and that the timetable is Divine in what we do divine, in seeking and finding. So it's a childhood game of Hide and Seek, that lasts into adulthood and beyond.

Surely we are seekers and that what we do in midrash and beyond, is about hear... right here! Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl February 16, 2011

opinions it is funny how everyone has their own opinion of who, what, when, where and why G-d. i guess someone could sit in a room and read many different opinions of G-d written down through centuries of thought. if G-d wants you to know he will tell you just as clear as Moses was told. I have a hard time believing that in Torah are the ONLY times in history people who G-d has ever spoke to is worth writing about. I know there were others who did not make the cut and there are some now living amonst us who could write their own if so inclined but that is the beauty of Torah, everything is there already and is the blueprint for life on this planet. if you choose not to read, follow, investigate free will is another option. there is no question that Torah is G-d and vice versa. sometimes it seems the bigger our ego the more questions we have and the more we need to be sure if existence is real as so many seem to be in the discrediting mode these days. some are using the words for other agendas. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 15, 2011

at one "meant" There are many ways to be in the felt presence of the Divine, and it's truly about loving.

I believe it's a journey of soul, and some are on different rungs, as I have said. We can explicate something, but it is filtered through experience, that for every one of us is different. Each of us, unique. A diamond in the rough.

The world provides us with myriad opportunities, and those who are being exhorted to change, are part of the opportunity.

Then again, it could be we can learn from each other. There is no one way.
Not every one must do it according to a rule. Love breaks all the rules. I know it.

And yet it's all One. A unity of diversity. A paradox.

There is great diversity throughout Creation, of ways of worshipping, of ways of seeing, of taking the light and being, every one of us, a prism that shines forth differently, and so we learn, the one from the other, about love itself, and we do solve and resolve our problems in mutual support, and song, in this most cosmic dance. Reply

Anonymous Ft. Towson, Oklahoma February 10, 2011

Made Sense to Me I start out my day by reading these wonderful gems of wisdom. Sometimes they are hard to follow but I keep re-reading until I (hopefully) get the message. This one was a diamond. It was almost surreal in its introduction and kept my interest all the way through. If we could just get it through our head(s) that G-d is where it's at, that all we need do is surrender to this one simple matter who you are, no matter where you are, He is always there. He is the All. And is available to chat 24/7. All we need do is open up our hearts to Him and keep that connection going. He is waiting for YOU. It's that simple. Reply

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