Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

The Rebbe points out that the English word for prayer is a poor conveyer of the true meaning of the action. In fact, not only does "prayer" fail to express the full significance of tefillah, the mistranslation represents an ideal and concept which is, in many ways, the very opposite of their true import in a Jew's outlook and experience.

"Prayer" and "tefillah" flow in opposite directions: prayer is "top down," while tefillah is a "from the bottom up" movement.

The directional difference reflects basic differences in what these two words mean and imply. To "pray" is to beseech, to beg for what one lacks. In other words, there is something which you need or want and are unable to obtain on your own, and there is someone else — wealthier, wiser, more powerful — who can grant your request. So you appeal to him, asking for what is beyond your reach to be bestowed from "above." One who lacks nothing, it follows, has no need for prayer.

The literal rendering of the Hebrew word tefillah is "attachment." Tefillah is our striving to refresh our attachment to our creator. Every soul is intrinsically connected with G‑d, a bond which it retains after entering into the body and assuming a physical existence. But the needs and mundane distractions that come with the physical state tend to cloud our vision, distort our priorities and undermine our connection with the Almighty and our commitment to the purpose of our creation. So, three times a day, we realign the focus of our lives. Through tefillah we communicate with our creator, expressing and augmenting our soul's eternal attachment to its divine source.

In tefillah we also request our needs of the Almighty. In doing so, we recognize and acknowledge that our physical lives are not divorced from our spiritual selves and are not distinct and apart of our relationship with G‑d. On the contrary, our earthly life fuels and enhances that relationship: when utilized and oriented to develop the world in accordance with G‑d's will, not only does the physical not obscure our attachment with G‑d but it is the key to the intensification and deepening of that connection.

Thus, to pray for our daily bread is part of, but not the essence of tefillah. Tefillah is much more than an expression of the desire to be the passive recipient of a grant bestowed from above. It is the upward flow of the soul's yearning to cleave to its maker, a flow that carries up with it the physical self and its needs, refining and elevating them by making them part of the soul's connection with its Source.