“Were you ever in a synagogue?”

“Sure. I go all the time.”

“What do they do there?”

“They pray.”

“Really. How do they do that?”

“Well, they say lots of prayers. Then they read from a scroll. Then the rabbi talks, and they pray some more.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“Not really.”

Hold on! Didn’t we start this whole series by explaining how prayer is the wildest, most exotic thing you can do? So how, pray tell, did they make it so dull?

The simple answer: Prayer is something like watching a chess game. If you have no clue what’s going on, it’s about as thrilling as watching the grass grow. The more you know about the game, the more thrilling it becomes.

So let’s start by getting a picture of the overall structure—where are we starting, where are we heading, and how do we get there. Because, you see, the morning prayer services are structured quite similar to a four-staged rocket launch into the heavens.

I didn’t make that up. It’s an explicit passage in Genesis:

Jacob left Be’er Sheva and headed toward Charan. He came to a familiar place and there he spent the night, as the sun had already set. Taking some stones, he placed them at his head and lay down there to sleep. Then he had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached the heavens. Upon it, G‑d’s angels were going up and down.1

What was that ladder? According to the Zohar, it’s the ladder of prayer. A four-runged ladder, actually—and accordingly, we climb four flights of stairs to move through four floors in our prayers (elevators are available for special needs and will be discussed later in the series):

Now the image above may not be the most sophisticated illustration of this ladder, but there are nevertheless a few things to be discerned from it.

  1. This is a two-way ladder. How can you tell? The angels are moving in two directions—just like in Jacob’s dream. (Don't see the angels? Look closer. The camera aperture/focus wasn't properly adjusted for angels.) They aren’t just going up, they’re coming down; and both are happening at the same time. You might call that uploading and downloading. (We call that hamshachah and haala’ah, concepts we’ll get to later.) Which means that this isn’t an escape ladder. We’re not running away from anything—because whatever goes up on this ladder, also goes down. And vice-versa.
  2. The ladder goes from the earth heavenwards—with no particular destination. Just as high as you can go. Which means that it’s connecting the most mundane, everyday, visceral experience with the most sublime, spiritual abstraction. The most heavenly with the earthiest.
  3. All the worlds are connected by this ladder. It’s not just an odyssey for you to come back and tell about to your grandchildren—it’s a creative process as well: all these worlds along the way become a single entity. You could call it a transport system to connect remote regions, or perhaps a networking system. The main point is that the purpose of our prayers is to connect the entire cosmos into a single whole.

Okay, so what are these realms through which the ladder takes us? Are we traveling to strange places with little green men where time goes backwards, or where there are thirteen spatial dimensions instead of three? How far do we need to travel to get there? How many light years?

The answer is zero. These worlds are right here now. The journey to get from one to another isn’t through space, but through consciousness and perception.

Recall the KabbalaToon in the last installment about Investmentization? We saw that there are creatures that live here on planet Earth, yet perceive an entirely different world. The world of a desert fox (and a pet dog) is principally made not of images, but of smells. When hounds have nightmares, they don’t see ghoulish fiends, they smell rotten meat. Bats live in a sonar world. Certain sharks live in a world perceived by magnetic resonance.

Unlike other creatures, human beings don't just see a tree when they see a tree

Similarly, human beings themselves can live in vastly different worlds. That’s one advantage human beings have over other earthly creatures: we traverse worlds. Meaning, we can perceive our world in deeper and deeper ways. We’re not limited to seeing, say, just a tree. We can see beauty there—which is something spiritual. In fact, we walk back and forth all the time between talking about the tree in concrete and in abstract terms.

Well, some human beings more than others. It would not be an exaggeration to say that an artist lives in a very different world than a staid bureaucrat, and a comedian in a world quite distinct from a banker (arguably to our benefit).

Now let’s go a little further with this tree. We could also attempt to see the tree as an articulation of one of G‑d’s thoughts. Then we would be in a higher world. The tree would no longer be something that’s “just there.” It would be speaking to us, pointing to something higher than itself.

From there, we could go yet higher, to a tree that doesn’t even need to point—it itself is engulfed within an all-encompassing light, a light within which nothing any longer has a distinct identity, absorbed as they are within an infinite source.

Here’s a KabbalaToon that might help you conceive of such things. Watch it a few times, paying attention to the dial at the bottom of the tutorial display:

Just as the world of the desert fox could be accessed if you had its hyper-keen sense of smell, so there are worlds accessible to us according to our state of consciousness. Which explains why the prophets were able to traverse these worlds quite literally—because they attained states of higher consciousness. Take a look at this strikingly mystical passage from the same Maimonides who is generally painted as a pragmatic, rational realist:

Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must also possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity.

A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound is fit for prophecy. When he enters the Orchard and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses an accurate mental capacity to comprehend and grasp them, he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.

Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath G‑d’s Throne of Glory, striving to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, in its manifold manifestations from the most elevated spiritual form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them. After these preparations, the divine spirit will immediately rest upon him.2

When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels called ishim, and he will be transformed into a different person and will understand with a knowledge different from what it was previously. He will rise above the level of other wise men, as the prophet Samuel told Saul:3 “The spirit of God will descend upon you and you shall prophesy with them. And you will be transformed into a different person.”4

Traditions concerning these “journeys of consciousness” were passed down orally. We are provided an inkling of these journeys in Talmudic anecdotes and in Sefer HaBahir. Even in later generations, Kabbalists such as the Baal Shem Tov were known to visit higher worlds and come back to tell us about them. The rest of us can at least try to imagine what it’s like. What sort of a journey would we have through prayer if we were a prophet? How does the Kabbalah master perceive the world during and after his tefillah? Just that imagination itself is a wondrous journey for us. Just the idea that we are invited on such a journey, even though it is something far beyond us, can inspire awe. As long as we recognize that we remain simple people—that we haven’t become Kabbalah masters overnight.

On this topic, you’ll want to read two stories: The Prayer Business, and The Two Horses of the Baal Shem Tov in the blog of Training Feivel.

Now here’s the chart mapping the four worlds that we traverse, according to the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari:5

World Consciousness Section
Asiyah—Action There is a world
It has no source
Yetzirah—Formation There is a world
It has a source
Verses of Praise
Beriah—Creation There is a Source
It has a world
Shema & its blessings
Atzilut—Emanation There is Infinite Light
There is nothing else
Shemoneh Esrei

In the upcoming installment, we’ll see how this map relates to how we are supposed to approach these stages of the tefillah. We’ll examine practical ways to apply all of this, so that the morning service can become not just meaningful, but a powerful element in our day. In the meantime, I would be happy to hear some requests in the Reader Comments. Where do you want this to take you? What bothers you most about tefillah, and what questions do you need answered?