In Jewish philosophy, nothing is without its purpose in the scheme of things, and no action is devoid of consequences. All words, thoughts and actions have cosmic effect, leading to an increase or decrease of spirituality. Thus, there is a correct and incorrect way for each action, each pattern of words and thoughts.
That is to say, the entire world as an organic whole is the physical representation of the spiritual realm. Physical action affects the spiritual realm, while in turn spiritual accomplishments affect the physical realm.
By spiritually improving ourselves and interacting with the physical world in a way that increases the corresponding properties of the spiritual world, we in turn influence the entire physical cosmos. Every gain in the spiritual realm causes greater harmony in the physical realm.
Correspondence between the Physical and the Spiritual
An analogy may illustrate the concept of correspondence. A person is thirsty and weak. He needs the protein, calcium and vitamins contained in milk. To get them, he must perform certain actions. He goes to the refrigerator, opens the door, takes out the milk container, closes the refrigerator, takes a cup, pours milk into the cup, lifts it to his lips, opens his mouth, tilts the cup and swallows.
Most of these actions are crucial to the desired purpose and so is the order in which they are performed. Opening a different door, removing a container and raising it to his lips may result in his swallowing poison instead of milk. Doing everything correctly and in the proper order, but neglecting to swallow, makes the whole exercise futile. Even changing the angle of the tilt of the cup slightly could waste the milk or induce choking. Each action and the order in which it is performed make a difference.
To an observer, each action and its sequence is clearly understood. However, imagine watching not the person, but rather his shadow on the floor and walls. A distorted human shape would extend an appendage towards a strange form (the shadow of the refrigerator), cause it to change shape (by opening the door), pull something out, move it, twist it in a strange way and so on. Each of the actions would be quite incomprehensible. The purpose of the actions would not be discernible; the milk adds nothing to the shadow of the container, and is thus essentially invisible to the observer.
We live in a physical universe which is really just a shadow of the "real thing": the spiritual cosmos. We are given the ability to manipulate the spiritual cosmos and to bring it to perfection through our physical action, words and thought. Living in the shadows as we do, we cannot always understand what the purpose of our shadow actions/words is. However, they are as crucial to our wellbeing as to the wellbeing of the cosmos: only our real selves, our spiritual aspect, can comprehend their true meaning.
Why the Physical Universe?
A builder asks an architect to design a building on paper before he calls the construction crew. The architect and engineers construct the building using symbols and figures. They manipulate these on paper until they achieve a satisfactory result. Then, the builder retranslates these symbols and figures into actual physical entities. It is far easier to build by first using abstractions than by immediately attempting the physical construction without any symbolic "abstract construction".
Similarly, to devise a new scientific process a scientist does not stock his or her laboratory with thousands of materials and endeavor to arrive at an original result by manipulating them. Instead, a set of symbols and figures representing the physical entities is devised, arranged in a certain order to form meaningful equations, and manipulated to arrive at the desired result. Only then does the scientist re-translate the symbols back into the physical entities they represent.
We are the symbols of the spiritual. We can attain otherwise unattainable spiritual goals right here in the physical universe with our physical bodies. This then is the role of the physical universe: spiritual entities are translated into corresponding physical entities. These play the role of symbols which can be manipulated to attain results unattainable in the spiritual realm. These results are then retranslated into the spiritual realm. We can choose to be meaningful symbols forming meaningful equations rather than being empty, meaningless shapes, moving chaotically, getting nowhere.
By improving our spiritual essence, we thus automatically contribute toward the perfection of the entire universe. What is this fundamental spiritual essence in us? The soul.
Just as the true essence of the universe is its spirituality, the true essence of a human is the spiritual entity of which he is merely an aspect, a shadow. We call that essence a "soul" for convenience: This soul is not merely a gift from G‑d--it is of G‑d ("and G‑d breathed into man the breath of life and man became a living soul," Genesis 2:7). The essence of the universe and all life in it is one, and is of G‑d.
Our souls hunger for spiritual nutrition. The actions we choose as a result of our own free will determine our spiritual progress. We are permitted only tenuous contact with the true, spiritual cosmos. (Free will is meaningless there because the truth is so obvious.) Nevertheless, this tenuous contact can be strengthened. The more we use our free will to strengthen our spiritual health, the more we strengthen the bond between our physical and spiritual essences, the more we comprehend the true significance of our actions and the closer we come to advancing the purpose of the entire cosmos.
Thus, our bodies in the physical realm are given precise instructions concerning the proper, optimal way in which to act. At certain times, certain actions are performed with certain objects, just as certain words are said and meditated on at certain times. These are the mitzvot ("commandments") and the prayers.
The Physics of the Spiritual Cosmos
The Jewish way is an expression of the physics of the spiritual cosmos.
Our souls have been given the incredible power to understand this system. A correspondence has been built between the actions of our bodies and the development of our souls, and between the manipulations of physical objects and the development of spiritual aspects. The entire physical cosmos is a set of symbols corresponding to entities in the spiritual cosmos.
The body of rules governing the manipulation of these symbols is what we call "Judaism" or here in this article "the Jewish way." By applying the proper transformations, by following the laws of Judaism as applied to everyday life, to every action, word and thought, we obtain new combinations of the symbols (the physical objects and actions) and thereby we obtain a new spiritual pattern.
Just as physics tells us how to manipulate mathematical symbols in order to obtain truths of the physical cosmos, Judaism tells us how to manipulate physical entities (ourselves, objects, actions, words...) in order to manifest truths of the spiritual cosmos.
Some religions consider physical desires and pleasures disgusting and encourage their rejection through asceticism or celibacy. Other religions consider the body and the physical world as hindrances, obstacles from which one must escape or which one must transcend. In contrast to these types of religious systems stands the Jewish way, which affirms that the body -- with its desires and emotions, pleasures and pains -- as well as the entire universe and all life in it, were created for a positive purpose.
Everything is important and anything can be holy. Every action, word or thought can bring us closer to G‑d and to our purpose. Food, drink, sex, work, sleep, prayer can all be vehicles to greater spirituality. All of these are the symbols which Judaism teaches us to use to achieve our purpose, to raise our spiritual level, to help bring the universe to the consummation of its purpose.
Matter versus Energy
Some people tend to think of matter in a negative, derogatory manner. To them, being materialistic is the opposite of being spiritual. Energy, on the other hand, has a much more positive image. A superior (created) being may easily be conceived of as composed exclusively of energy--"above" mere matter.
However, Einstein's famous equation E=mc2 tells us that energy (E) and matter (m) are really two manifestations of the same thing. Energy can be transformed into matter, and matter can be transformed into energy. In fact, small amounts of matter can be transformed into tremendous amounts of energy.
[The multiplying factor is c2, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum, 3x108m/sec. Thus from five kilograms of mass one obtains: E(nergy) = 5 kg (3 X 108m/sec)2 = 5 (9 x 1016)kg m2/sec2 = 4.5 x 1017kg m2/sec = 450.000,000.000.000,000 units of energy. The human body, if totally converted to energy. would yield the equivalent of approximately 100,000 atom bombs of the type which destroyed Hiroshima. (1 Hiroshima bomb = 120,000 tons of TNT. Adult male = 5 kg--E=75kg(9x1016m2/sec) = 6.75 x 1018 nt.m. = 100,000 Hiroshima bombs).]
The highest density of energy found in the universe is the density of the energy locked into the form we call matter. One can in fact think of matter as highly concentrated energy. Just as some "religious" people tend to value matter less than energy, they value the body less than the spirit. However, in truth, the body is actually a kind of concentrated, condensed spirituality!
The body has a tremendous potential. It can achieve tremendous spirituality. Of course, the body is still considered as being lower than the spirit (soul) -- but this is so only because the body in itself is not the goal. Rather, it is only the body's vast potential for spirituality which gives it merit. In other words, the body is the means; the soul is the end.
If the energy locked into the matter composing the body is staggering, its spiritual potential is no less. If one human body contains enough concentrated energy to totally destroy the Earth, it contains sufficient spiritual energy to spiritually elevate the entire planet.
The entire physical universe is a "concentrated" form of the spiritual cosmos. But the potential of each part of the universe can only be actualized through human interaction with it.
Now we can understand prayer and the mitzvot in a new light.
For example: we are told to take, on Sukkot, a citron, and branches of palm, myrtle and willow. The last three must be bound together in a certain way. We then move them in a specified manner while saying and thinking special words.
Only by being closely in touch with our spiritual nature can we appreciate the cosmic significance of this mitzvah. Yet, only by actually performing the mitzvah can we grow spiritually to the level where we are in touch with our spiritual nature.
Thus we begin to understand that the mitzvot, correctly aligned in time and space, have truly cosmic and not merely "symbolic" significance.
We spoke of the soul and of the effect of our actions on it. What about the words and thoughts formulated by one's mouth and brain? What channels of communication exist for words rather than actions? How does the body communicate via words to the spiritual cosmos?
In other words, what language does the soul speak?
All of matter is composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. (For the physicist reader: to say quarks, leptons and so forth is more precise, but there is no need for pedantry here.) All protons are identical to each other, as all neutrons are identical to each other, and all electrons are identical to each other. How then can the universe be constructed from only three types of particles? If diamond and celery, human tissue and salt are all composed of the same three compounds, why are they so different?
The answer is that the properties of an atom with one proton orbited by one electron are radically different from the properties of another atom consisting of two protons and two electrons orbiting them. Incredibly tiny differences separate all the different kinds of atoms. The combination of six protons, six neutrons and six electrons makes carbon. Add two protons, two neutrons and two electrons and you get oxygen. A molecule made of two atoms of oxygen is known to us as the life-giving gas oxygen. Replace one oxygen atom with an atom of carbon and the result is CO (carbon monoxide), which is poisonous. Or, take a certain molecule, change the positions of the atoms slightly without adding or subtracting anything, and something new has been created.
Thus, using only three types of particles, a universe can be built by knowing how to combine the particles into atoms, how to combine the various components and build them all into one coherent, self-consistent whole.
The letters of the Holy Tongue are the basic particles of the spiritual cosmic language.
Indeed, the Torah says that G‑d created the universe by saying the specific words, "Let there be light... Let there be a firmament..." Each letter by itself has great significance. Letters can be combined into words, and the words into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs and so on. Each combination of letters, words and paragraphs possesses a unique significance and great potency in the spiritual realm.
Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is invested with many layers of meaning. The same is true with each word and each combination of words. Thus, each Hebrew prayer has many levels of meaning. At the surface level is the "translation", the straightforward meaning. Then there are the deeper levels of meaning of the composition as a whole.
Thus, each prayer is a wondrous and unique entity. But how do prayers help us? To understand how, we turn to another analogy.
As a doctor prepares various remedies to be taken at specified times, so too our forebears prepared for us spiritual potions to cure our spiritual ills, to maintain our spiritual health, to aid our growth.
The medical patient benefits from thousands of years of research by myriads of dedicated experts which led to knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry and medicine. In the same way, we benefit from the result of the input of spiritual leaders throughout the ages.
Among the spiritual giants of the past who prayed and handed down their formulas to us are Shem and Eber, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam and Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Hanna, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, Esther, Hillel, Akiva... These brilliant and holy people used their insight and spirituality to compose prayers with the deepest of spiritual significance.
Certainly the more we understand, the deeper we delve, the better we can adapt the spiritual medicine to our specific personal needs and to the needs of our times.
We are constantly bombarded by all types of radiation: the light from the sun and stars, the rays which cause our skin to tan, and many other types we neither feel nor notice. These include cosmic rays or the billions of neutrons originating in far-away stars passing through our bodies and through the entire earth to continue on their interstellar journey.
Of course, these signals are perceptible only with the proper precision equipment--and many signals escape us because our instruments, at present, are too weak to detect them. There are also quite possibly many types of signals we are not even aware of. Radio astronomy is quite new, X-ray astronomy even newer. Who knows what will be discovered in the future?
We are constantly bombarded by other types of radiation: the electromagnetic waves broadcast by radio and television stations on earth. We are able to obtain clear pictures and sounds--again, with the proper instruments. Thus we can be totally alone in a dark room, yet surrounded with the messages of hundreds of people, flooded with beautiful visions and music.
Someone who has never heard of radio and television might not believe that the air is full of music and visual beauty. If he cannot hear or see it, he may not believe it is there.
Similarly, the cosmos is full of spiritual radiation. We are constantly bombarded with messages, with visions of great beauty and deep meaning. But we can receive them only with the proper spiritual equipment.
By developing, refining and fine-tuning our spiritual faculties we can begin to discern this spiritual radiation. We will even become aware of our own constant emission of similar radiation. Our thoughts and emotions, our prayers, all radiate from us in all directions. We can tune in to all sorts of messages which other people not only do not hear but are not even aware of. We can be attuned to ourselves and to others to an extent otherwise impossible. We can develop this inherent potential by developing and fine-tuning our spirituality on our built-in transmitter-receivers: our souls.
Our souls are like musical instruments within us, singing out the uniqueness of each individual. The most beautiful music, however, is not always made by one instrument alone. Joining together in symphonic synergy we can create harmonies greater than the song of each isolated individual without losing the unique contribution of any single constituent.
The Critical Mass of a Minyan
Each of us can emit "spiritual radiation" from our souls--but the combined effect of more than one soul is greater than the sum of the individual efforts.
When ten souls pray together a critical energy is reached, and these assembled ten achieve what hundreds apart could not. The power of the combined soul energy draws it to the highest level of contact with G‑d: G‑d's "presence".
As G‑d is omnipresent -- there is nowhere and nothing removed from G‑d's presence -- prayer is not limited merely to the synagogue. As there are no intermediaries between G‑d and human beings, anybody -- in whatever state or of whatever status -- can initiate communication with the Divine at any time without special formulas, without "priests" and without prior training. We are created "in the image of G‑d" and our essence is derived directly from G‑d-"and G‑d breathed into man the breath of life." We need only to strike the G‑dly chord within us in order to communicate with G‑d. There is no need for stained glass and marble floors.
Nevertheless, it is possible to increase our contact with G‑d. It is said that G‑d's presence rests wherever a minyan (a quorum of ten or more Jews) prays; and the greater the number, the stronger the presence.
Most everyone today would recognize "U-235" as the chemical symbol for the nuclear fuel Uranium 235, and has not heard the term "critical mass". But what does it that term mean?
Simply put, it requires the joint effort of many atoms of Uranium to produce the conditions necessary to form a chain reaction. Each individual atom can emit radiation energy. However, when a certain amount of atoms are put together, the combined effect is far greater than the simple sum of each one separately.
Each one separately accomplishes nothing. It is only when the amount of atoms present reaches a critical minimum number (and therefore the sum of the masses of the atoms reaches a critical mass) that nuclear power plants (and bombs) can release energy.
Man can release energy destructively through bombs and constructively through prayer.
In many modern synagogues, few of the congregants know the prayers well enough even to correctly pronounce them. Canters and rabbis are hired to do it for them. Although the cantor's beautiful melodies may be moving, they are no substitute for whole-hearted concentration/meditation/prayer on the part of the congregants. This is especially the case when the canter has been hired for his voice alone rather than also for high moral qualities and deep spirituality.
In Jewish prayer, one person from among the congregation is chosen as "representative of the public before G‑d". As representative, he should be a righteous person, respected by all. Both performing and conducting, he leads a critical mass of at least ten soul-instrumentalists who create a spiritual symphony not only of overwhelming beauty but of powerful cosmic effect.
To read all this without actually praying, doing the mitzvot and learning enough about them to perform them with mind and soul as well as body accomplishes nothing. To appreciate these "cosmic" concepts while reading, with no further action, would be a loss.
Judaism is not merely a collection of knowledge or a philosophy. It is a way of life. One must experience it to understand it. How can blue be explained to one who has never seen color, music to one who has never heard a sound?
After our minds have been convinced, we must allow our souls to experience.
Find a prayer book that includes explanations and meanings. Choose a prayer that you like. Study it, meditate on it, learn it by heart. Say it every day. Open yourself up as you say it. Search for clearer, deeper meanings. Clear your brain of all worries and plans, for five minutes every day, at least, and pray.
Like our bodies, our souls also need three square meals a day, at certain periods and with differing ingredients. Breakfast is shacharit, lunch--mincha, and supper--ar'vit. They are optimally served in the early morning, early afternoon and early evening. Don't starve your soul!
Spontaneous prayer--the poetry of the soul--is truly desirable. However, the ability to express oneself in spontaneous prayer can often be achieved most easily as a by-product of formal daily prayer. (See Aryeh Kaplan's book Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide [New York: Shocken Books, 1985] for further discussion on this subject.)
To someone unfamiliar with the prayer book, though, the material covered in the morning prayers alone seems a formidable quantity. It may be advisable then to start with the prayers that are most meaningful to you. With time and study the whole prayer book will manifest its organic unity. Stronger feeling, insight and direction will resonate within you the more you bring forth any part of it.
In fact, "prayer" is a convenient mistranslation of the Hebrew word teffilah, which comes from the reflexive verb l'hitpallel. Teffilah is a personal meditation that spiritually transforms the cosmos. It is not for the benefit or praise of G‑d. Rather, it is a reflexive activity orientated towards the person engaged in it and towards the cosmos at large. For the person it is a meditative exercise, a time of introspection and self-examination; for the cosmos, a balm for its ills, a formula for its proper development.
Occasionally, one is angry at the world, at mankind, or even at G‑d. In such instances, we tend to think that prayer is inappropriate. Not so. If one is angry at G‑d, whom else should one address? If one has 'a gripe against the world or against humanity, the first step should be a dialogue with G‑d, via prayer. (Consider Abraham and Moses.)
The worst excuse is that one doesn't "feel like praying today". This itself is the best sign that prayer is needed precisely that day.
One might feel that fervent prayer is hypocritical if it originates from an imperfect heart. We all know very well that immediately after praying life usually goes on without noticeable improvement in one's behavior. However, both these attitudes miss the point of prayer, which is to bring out the very best in a person-- even if for only a few moments a day.
That our hearts sometimes are imperfect and our actions reflect this, even after teffilah, is a fact of life. We are human beings and not angels. And as human beings we can cultivate the Divine spark within us and work on a corresponding improvement in actual behavior.
Every one of us can transcend our worldly existence during the minutes devoted to teffilah and unselfconsciously, unapologetically pray with total involvement--with mind and heart and soul. Then, slowly, over the years, perhaps one can elevate one's life as a whole.
Teffilah is necessary for the health and vitality of the soul. It is a basic human need. Refraining from prayer, even out of the sincere motivation of not wishing to seem hypocritical, is harmful to the psyche. No one, regardless of spiritual or moral station, should consider him or herself--or be considered by others--as too despicable, too far gone to pray or to pray with fervor.
The most distinctly human quality is the ability to carry out an act of will--free will--in accordance with the understanding of the consequences of one's action provided by one's intelligence. Virtually everyone feels better after a day of vigorous accomplishments than after a day of lolling in bed. Nevertheless, who has not at some time experienced a lack of will to get out of bed in the morning?
Those who exert their will power and rise, are happy they did so; while those who succumb to sleep regret it and vow not to give in again, although sometimes a vicious circle sets in: lack of will leads to lack of accomplishment which leads to depression and further weakening of the will.
Depression is not an excuse not to pray. On the contrary, it is a condition that can be ameliorated by prayer. Indeed, the very decision to pray, involving as it does an assertive exercise of the will, is an important part of dissipating depression.
So forget guilt! Guilt is, for Woody Alien, whose Judaism consists mainly of that (although he is capable of much, much more). Concentrate instead on the positive. Allow spontaneous moments of spirituality to flower unselfconsciously, uncritically, without analyzing them occur.
Spontaneity is important, but so is the rhythm of self-discipline. People who have not developed and fine-tuned their souls rarely feel like setting aside time for prayer. If left to pray only when they felt like it, they would do so only under fire in the trenches. Because teffilah is so vital to the individual person and to the cosmos as a whole, it is necessary to apply discipline. Prayer is too important to be relegated to moments of dire peril.
To have proper kavanah (spiritual focus) while the minutes tick by during the morning rush is an accomplishment in itself. Nevertheless, it can be done. One must merely will it. When the effort is made, teffilah becomes a richly rewarding experience. The daily minutes of channeled meditation by one who prays with kavanah can infuse the entire day with strength and calm.
Praises to G‑d, statements referring to G‑d's omniscience and omnipotence and to our own origin and end in dust, found within the prayer book, are not "flattery to G‑d". They are instead means of reminding us that the universe has a Creator and a purpose and that the human being alone is not the sole purpose of Creation. Rather, the spiritual being who develops him or herself from the human animal is part of that purpose. We were created in the image of G‑d. A praise to G‑d is thus praise to the G‑dly in human beings.
Reminders of G‑d's strength are not meant to cow us to His will. Rather, they are intended to reassure us that all things happen for a reason--albeit often a higher reason than we fathom--and that G‑d has neither forgotten nor abandoned Creation. These reminders serve as a promise that if we "get our act together" then the universe as a whole will achieve harmony.
As man is created in the image of G‑d, he is commanded to walk in the ways of G‑d. Litanies to G‑d's kindness, mercy, charity and justice are not flattery. They are reminders to us of the G‑dly qualities that we must imitate.
Walk into a synagogue and seek out those who seem sincerely involved in meditative prayer. Sit where they do. Shop around for a synagogue where there are people who live in the uniquely Jewish lifestyle, who understand what it is to be a Jew and to be mitpallel to G‑d.
Seek out those who are truly "religious" people and ignore (or help) the others who seem merely to appropriate this label for themselves. Ignore noise, talking, laughter during teffilah. Be part of the minyan of people who have not relinquished truth. Perhaps one day you will be able to help the others. In the meantime, do not lose heart and do not reject the synagogue because of its backbenchers. Do not reject teffilah because it is also mouthed by some who might seem to be hypocrites to you.
When we find truth in our Jewish way of life, we must hold on to and perform it--despite the fact that most of the world ignores or denies it. Even more difficult is to uphold the truth while others demean it with cynicism or--worse--apathy.
The closer we keep to the correct path, the healthier our spirituality will become. The contact between our spiritual and physical selves will grow closer. Our bodies are precision instruments designed for maximum efficiency of spiritual achievement. When our spirit thirsts, we will be aware of it and know how to quench the thirst. And the beneficial aftereffects will bring ourselves--and the cosmos--closer toward achieving the purpose of Creation.