For Whom Do We Pray?

There is a fundamental difference of opinion as to the very definition of the mitzvah of prayer. In delineating this mitzvah, Rambam writes:1

This commandment obligates every individual to offer supplication and prayer every day — to utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then to petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, to give praise and thanks to G‑d for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him — every individual according to his own ability.

From this, it would appear that the core of prayer is a request for one’s needs, but since it would not be fitting to approach G‑d with nothing but requests, they are surrounded by praise and gratitude.

Nevertheless, at the very beginning of his discussion of prayer, when focusing on the source of the mitzvah, Rambam states:2

It is a positive Scriptural commandment to pray every day, as it is written,3 “You shall serve G‑d, your L‑rd.” Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as it is written,4 “And to serve Him with all your heart,” and our Sages have said,5 “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer.”

We are thus left with a question: Is prayer for man? — the means by which we obtain our needs from Above? Or is it for G‑d? — an act of service to Him, that emanates from the very core of our beings?

The Spiritual Plane is a Mirror

As explained in the maamarim that follow, these two motivations — requesting our needs and serving G‑d — are not contradictory; indeed, they reinforce each other. Prayer is not merely a request for our needs from G‑d; it is a process which evokes an outflow of Divine energy that will lead to the fulfillment of such a request. This concept is reflected by the phrase that begins many of our prayers: Yehi ratzon — “May it be Your will…”; i.e., our prayers elicit a new Divine will.6

How do our prayers evoke such an outflow of energy Above? When man rises above his individual identity and devotes himself to G‑d’s service, he steps beyond his personal limitations. Then, in keeping with the Kabbalistic principle that an arousal initiated by a mortal from below awakens a reciprocal arousal from Above,7 his self-transcendence calls forth a level of G‑dliness that is likewise transcendent, not being bound by the gestalt that prevails both in the spiritual realms and on this material plane. When a person transforms his inner self, he thereby brings about changes in the spiritual worlds Above which in turn change his circumstances on this material plane.

Refining, Elevating, Igniting

Thus, paradoxically, the way a person ensures that his needs are answered in prayer is by forgetting about himself and his needs. This is why, in the passage cited above, prayer is called avodah, meaning “service.” Avodah (עבודה)literally means “work” — and changing one’s inner self is indeed the hardest work possible. The above Hebrew term also shares a root with ibud (עיבוד), which is the process of tanning leather. Just as the tanning process takes a raw animal hide and transforms it into a useful product, so too, through the avodah of prayer, a person’s heart goes through a radical redefinition. No longer is he concerned with his individual wants and desires, nor even with his spiritual wants and desires. He goes beyond all consciousness of self and is transformed into a servant of G‑d.

For this reason, prayer is described in chassidic terminology as one aspect of the lifelong task of beirurim, which means refinement, and of haalaah mimatah lemaalah, which means the elevation of that which is lowly.Generally, such an activity involves the use of material entities for the service of G‑d. Thus, wool is used for tzitzis, a Torah scroll is written on parchment, and food provides the energy needed for Torah study. In this way, a material entity is taken from the realm of physicality and used for a spiritual purpose.

Prayer represents the ultimate stage of this mode of Divine service. Instead of one’s heart being focused on his physical concerns, it is redirected upward, toward G‑d and His service.

When performing other mitzvos, as in the above examples, a person is elevating other material entities. In prayer, he is elevating his own self. Thus, not only the external aspects of an entity are being elevated; when a person prays, his own innermost being, his heart and mind, aspires upward. The latent love for G‑d that abides in the heart of each of us is fanned into a burning flame.

Spiritual Gravity

The very virtue of prayer — that a person takes the initiative to elevate his heart and mind — also harbors several drawbacks. First of all, as mentioned above, the quality of his prayer depends on the degree to which he has refined himself. Not always does one rise to the challenge. At times, one finds it difficult to muster the inner strength to direct his mind and heart upward.

Since the influence drawn down from Above is commensurate with one’s Divine service, the extent of his refinement determines the spiritual levels that his prayers reach. Moreover, a mortal’s range is by definition limited. On a personal level, our intellectual and emotional potentials have certain bounds. Moreover, even if a person would work on himself and refine himself thoroughly, as a created being he can perceive only those dimensions of G‑dliness that have descended into the natural order. The transcendent dimensions of G‑dliness — G‑d as He is Himself, as it were — are beyond his reach.

Furthermore, even the object and the effect of prayer, such as a request for healing or for prosperity, are material. Even when the request is granted, G‑dliness is not overtly perceivable.

The Undimmed Light of the Torah

To emphasize the above points, the teachings of Chassidus often contrast prayer with the study of Torah. Torah study exemplifies Divine service that moves in the opposite direction — hamshachah milemaalah lematah, drawing G‑dliness downward into this material plane. In this dynamic, the light that is drawn down is less directly dependent on the activity undertaken below. Thus the refinement of the person studying is not as critical.

This concept is reflected by our Sages’ statement8 that a person may recite words of Torah while in a state of ritual impurity, as intimated by the verse,9 “Behold My word is like fire.” Just as fire is not subject to ritual impurity, neither are the words of Torah. Since the words being studied are “My word,” an expression of G‑dliness, the fact that the person uttering them is in a state of ritual impurity has no effect on them. While our Sages were speaking of ritual impurity in its halachic context, the concept can be extended and applied to a person’s Divine service. Even though a person is impure, lacking in his spiritual development, his Torah study remains G‑d’s word and thus draws down G‑dliness into this material realm.

Moreover, Torah study draws down G‑dliness in an apparent manner. Even after the Torah has descended into this world, it remains G‑d’s wisdom. A student engaged in its study can appreciate that he is involved with something spiritual. On the most basic level, when he comprehends the wisdom of the Torah, he can discern that it is different from secular wisdom.

Echoing G‑d’s Prayer

Reaching beyond the above-mentioned aspects of prayer, the maamarim to follow point to a different and higher conception of prayer. This conception is expressed in the verse that is recited as a preface to every Shemoneh Esreh prayer:10 “My G‑d, open my lips and let my mouth relate Your praise.” When reciting Shemoneh Esreh, a person should stand “like a servant before his master,”11 with no thought of self. In this sense, his prayer is not his own. Just as in Torah study the words of the Torah are “the words of G‑d” (“My words that I have placed in your mouth”12 ) and the person studying is “like one repeating the words uttered by the reader,”13 so too, in prayer, “my mouth” will “relate Your praise.” Man’s prayer will be such that it will serve as a medium to draw down “Your praise,” i.e., G‑d’s prayer.14

When a prayer is offered in such a manner, it possesses both positive virtues:

a) the inherent merit of prayer — that it involves Divine service on man’s part, and

b) the merit of Torah study — that G‑dly light is drawn down from Above and is perceptible as G‑dly light on this material plane.

The combination of these two virtues in the Divine service of prayer — when the mouth of the worshiper expresses his requests by relating “Your praise” — endows the Divine influence drawn down by prayer with two characteristics. Firstly, it brings about a change on the material plane,15 and secondly, the change on the material plane is such that the G‑dly light that brought it about is perceptible.16 Unlimited influence is thus drawn down without its having to reckon with the process of Divine self-limitation that usually characterizes the descent of influence through the spiritual cosmos.

Whenever a Person Prays

The above concepts do not apply only to an exclusive spiritual elite. Rather, whenever a person prays, even if outwardly he is not praying with focused concentration, an unconscious arousal is taking place within his inner being. From the perspective of the Jew’s inner essence, he is standing before the King. Every prayer recited by a Jew gives voice to an arousal from below that evokes and draws down Divine light that transcends the standard limitations of the spiritual cosmos and thus brings about change within our world.

True, if the desired changes are to be revealed concretely, one must actually concentrate and genuinely step beyond his individual identity. But even when a person prays without such conscious devotion, such a change is taking place within his soul in a subtle, not entirely realized manner. Moreover, he is generating an effect — albeit a concealed one — within this world.

This is of course true with regard to the prayers whose source lies so deep in our souls, our prayers for the coming of Mashiach. May the study of these maamarim arouse a sincere and heartfelt prayer that will rend all veils Above and enable the Redemption to be manifest as a top-to-bottom reality.