Abstract: In a discourse on the opening verse of King Solomon’s Song of Songs, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi builds on his famous doctrine of the two souls, articulating a psychological approach that transforms struggle into song. Rather than confronting our inadequacies and agonizing over them, we simply need to disown them, step away from them, and embrace the transcendent song of our truer selves, the idealistic reality of our G‑dly souls. That, he explains, is what it means to pray.

Who Am I Really?

For us mortals, the tension between idealism and realism is not some abstract philosophical issue. The disconnect between what we think we should be doing (our ideals) and what we actually find ourselves doing (real life) can be downright demoralizing. When we fail to live up to our ideals, we often take ourselves to task. When we should actually be celebrating our moral ambition and strengthening our resolve, we instead accuse ourselves of hypocrisy and egotism. Rather than recommitting ourselves to our ideals, we are tempted to abandon them.

At its root, this is a crisis of identity. Our failure to live up to our own ideals confuses us. Who am I really? Am I the person I want to be, or should I lower my expectations and come to terms with the inadequacies of my character? Psychologically, this can be extremely disorienting, leading to real stagnation in every area of life and holding us back from any attempt to improve and excel.

Some might encounter this kind of crisis in their working life, in the social sphere or in some aspect of their personal life. I struggle with it most when I try to pray. As in any other area of human life, religious people are likely to find themselves caught between an idealistic perception of how they should pray and how they pray in reality.

How can such crises be overcome?

Living Wisdom

In the chassidic tradition, the real actualization of ideals is often illustrated through a story—an ideal as it was once lived and as it can be lived again. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950), the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, was an avid curator of such lived wisdom.1 Thinking about the problem of idealism and realism, I was struck by the particular relevance of two of his recorded recollections. Both are early childhood memories (circa 1884), in which his father, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch, is immersed in prayer. But they represent starkly contrasting impressions.

The first memory seems to be of a specific episode, describing R. Shalom DovBer’s recital of the Shema, the liturgical declaration that “G‑d is one.” In Chabad this is understood as a declaration that G‑d’s oneness encompasses all things, Prayer: The effacement of man in the presence of G‑d, and the affirmation of G‑d’s presence in the life of man.and that all things are absorbed within G‑d’s oneness:2

The synagogue is empty, and my father is weeping. I listen closely and hear that he is saying “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear O Israel”), and that he is weeping. . . . After pronouncing the words “Hashem Elokeinu” (“G‑d, our L‑rd”), he fell silent. Then the final words, “Hashem Echad” (“G‑d is one”), burst forth from the depths of his heart with a great awe-inspiring cry.3

This is a memory of an awe-filled encounter, of the effacement of man in the presence of G‑d.

The second memory is a more general recollection of how R. Shalom DovBer prayed each morning. Aside from the Shema and the silent prayers of supplication, the morning prayer liturgy is largely composed of psalms in praise of G‑d. In Chabad these prayers are approached as a contemplative and introspective exercise, in which the individual seeks to cultivate his or her awareness of divine transcendence, immanence, greatness and goodness, and also to refine one’s own character so that it better reflects the divine ideal:4

He would sing and pray, circling and walking to and fro, clicking his fingers and making sweeping gestures with his hands. . . . I was then a small child, and the assumption formed in my mind that prayer is synonymous with song . . .”5

This is a memory of song-filled celebration, the affirmation of G‑d’s presence in the life of man.

From Struggle to Song

These are slivers of an ideal once lived. The question for me, and for every Chabad chassid, is whether or not they can be lived again.

The inadequacy of our attempts at prayer often makes us think that such feats of contemplation, introspection and experience are beyond us. Who are we to anticipate awestruck awareness of the utter oneness of G‑d, or joyous celebration of the tangibility of G‑d’s presence? It is easier to simply admit that we lack the necessary capacities of mindful focus and of heartfelt sensitivity and sincerity.6

Even more daunting is the direct encounter with G‑d that such prayer entails. No one knows your shortcomings and failures better than yourself. And to stand in the presence of G‑d is to measure what you are against what you should and could be. It is for good reason that chassidic sources often refer to prayer as a war or a battle. From this perspective, the process of prayer is synonymous with struggle. Only when worldly pursuits and instincts are subdued can the soul successfully assert itself.7

But R. Yosef Yitzchak’s youthful assumption that prayer is synonymous with song hints at a different approach to chassidic prayer. Song too requires concentration, discipline and skill, but unlike a battle it should not be a struggle. War requires alacrity and action, but to sing is to submit, to lose yourself entirely in the transcendent spirit of the melody.

Two Personas

The shift from prayer as struggle to prayer as song is explicated in a discourse by R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first leader of Chabad, and is predicated on a deep psychological shift of much broader application.

In his foundational work of Chabad thought and instruction, Likkutei Amarim Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman famously distinguished between “two souls . . . which are two personas.” The first is the bodily soul “vested in the blood of man to enliven the body . . . and from it come all bad traits.” The second “is literally a part of G‑d above.” These two personas are utterly distinct from one another, but vie for control of the faculties of thought, speech and action within each individual.8

We usually think of ourselves as having just one soul, one persona. Accordingly, we attribute struggles between right and wrong to the competing inclinations towards good and bad. This internal competition can be a source of much angst and confusion. This is where the split between idealism and reality causes us to condemn ourselves as hypocrites. But R. Schneur Zalman’s distinction attributes any ungodly thought, speech or action to the bodily soul, which has momentarily wrested control of our faculties, rather than to our real selves. The true self is To pray is to step aside and make space so that the transcendent song of the G‑dly soul can overtake you.“literally a part of G‑d above,” and utterly transcends the inadequacies of the body and its inclinations.

In chapter 28 of Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman applies this axiomatic psychological shift to the problem of prayer. If you are distracted during prayer by improper thoughts, he argues, you should not conclude that your prayers are hypocritical and worthless.

That would be true if there was only one soul which was both praying and thinking improper thoughts. But the real truth is that they are two souls battling with one another. . . . It is as though a person were praying intently, and an evil idol-worshipper stands before him chatting and talking to him in order to confuse him. The certain solution to this is not to reply . . . and to make yourself like a deaf person who does not hear . . .

While this solution releases you from the crisis of identity and the illusion of hypocrisy, it does not entirely bring inner turmoil and tension to an end. Prayer is still described in deeply confrontational terms, not as a song but as a battle, in which you struggle to block out the distracting interruptions of the animal soul.

But in a discourse published in Likkutei Torah, R. Schneur Zalman uses the same psychological shift to offer a more peaceful approach to prayer. Instead of struggling against worldly inclinations, instead of fighting each surge of self-doubt, he invites us to enter a much more passive role. To pray, he says, is to step aside and make space so that the transcendent song of the G‑dly soul can overtake you.9

It is not the body or the animal soul that prays; rather, it is “the part of G‑d above” that prays, speaking within you the words of prayer. . . . You need not do anything except make heard to your ears the singing and the prayer which it [the G‑dly soul] sings . . .” Echoing chapter 28 of Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman reminds us that it is not your earthly self that prays, but your better and truer self, a spark of G‑d singing within you. But here he does not talk of confrontation, only of song. Here prayer is not depicted as a battleground, but as a peaceful oasis: a place to listen and to sing, a place to “make heard to your ears that which you bring forth from your mouth.”10

The Song of Songs

Intense Prayer, oil on canvas by Chanoch Hendel Lieberman, 1962.
Intense Prayer, oil on canvas by Chanoch Hendel Lieberman, 1962.

In shifting prayer from the earthly self to the G‑dly self, from struggle to song, R. Schneur Zalman also extends the personal into the realm of the collective. The divine soul of each individual, he explains, is a refraction of the collective soul of the Jewish people, which is in turn synonymous with the divine presence of G‑d on earth.

In R. Schneur Zalman’s own words:

All of Israel, each individual, is intertwined with his fellow. . . . The service of collective Israel, which pleads and throws itself before G‑d, is called the revealed indwelling of G‑d. . . . When man listens to this song and this prayer, it is called hosting the revealed indwelling of G‑d . . .11

To pray is not merely a personal or a collective endeavor. To pray is to host the revealed indwelling of G‑d. Your personal prayer is a cosmic affair.

This, continues R. Schneur Zalman, is one of the hidden meanings of King Solomon’s famous Song of Songs. “Songs” in the plural refers to the individual songs of all individual Jews. “Song of songs” refers to the single collective song of G‑d that comprises all the individual songs of Israel. In raising our voices in song to G‑d, we give earthly expression to the divine melody.

In this discourse R. Schneur Zalman presents us with a radically different approach to prayer, transforming it from a personal struggle into the collective song of the entire cosmos. To pray is not simply to wrest momentary control of your individual faculties from the hands of the animal soul. To pray is to participate in the eternal song of the transcendent soul of Israel, to host the immanent indwelling of G‑d. To pray is to create a space inside yourself, an oasis of calm where you can hear the song of songs as it issues from your lips.

This approach to prayer certainly requires attentive focus on the words and an awareness of their meaning. It may also require a greater degree of personal refinement and spiritual sensitivity,12 but ultimately it is achievable even for ordinary people.13 In chapter 28 of Tanya, the emphasis is placed on rejecting the disturbances of your animal soul. In this discourse, the emphasis is placed on embracing your divine soul. Likewise, this is not simply about going beyond your individual constraints,You are empowered to disown your inadequacies . . . so that you can realize the legitimate ideals of the true you.but about entering into the collective experience of the Jewish nation, and tuning in to the divine melody that permeates all reality.

By internalizing Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s doctrine of the two souls, articulated in Tanya and in the present discourse, you are effectively released from the burden of psychological angst. You are empowered to disown your inadequacies, inhibitions and demoralizing confusions, so that you can realize the legitimate ideals of the true you; so that you can transcend your individual limitations and partake in the collective wholeness of the Jewish nation; so that you can host the revealed presence of G‑d on earth.

In the prayerful moments when we embrace the inner song of our G‑dly souls, there is no crisis, no tension. If we can but summon the presence of mind and turn away from the distracting confusions of our egos, if we can but attune our ears to listen, struggle gives way to transcendent song, to the real ideal of the spark of G‑d singing within our souls.