The Kabbalah of Prayer
[opening exercise: HaMakom above and below. one side of room senses the energy from above, one side from below, i.e. the earth. Invitation to leave one’s “stuff” behind. Face each other, stop and absorb both energies, heart to heart. This is the nexus, the Star of David meeting point-to-point, absorbing masculine and feminine, heaven and earth.]
Those of you who know me may find this High Holiday’s teachings on Kabbalah a surprise. Kabbalah You well may wonder why an iconoclastic skeptic from an ardently Reform childhood who prefers to tell mythic stories rationally is dabbling in the miraculous, mystical, and occasionally magical strands of Jewish teaching.
I am more comfortable with exoteric knowledge, which Webster’s defines as “discourse suitable for the uninstructed and the general public.” It’s not that I doubt your intelligence as much as I fear that I will be misunderstood in talking about the divine from an intimate perspective. Ethics are much easier to talk about. I have always been reluctant to appear airy-fairy or worse, dumb. But maybe being dumb in the sense of silent is what this is about, because, in truth, there are no words to describe the encounter with the divine.
But never before have I felt so strongly that the time has come for the once-secret wisdom of the Kabbalah. No matter how faithful or optimistic you may be, I doubt that there is anyone in this room who does not grieve and worry about these times in which we live. Your concern is holy, and for it not to devolve into despair, we must find a way to look beyond the immediate moment for a tikkun, a way to repair our hearts and our world. This is why I’m taking the risk of speaking about what was once reserved only for the wisest and most enlightened.
Kabbalah means, “received from the tradition”, and from the beginning, which some will say goes back to before the world was created, it was taught in a whisper, one to one. And what was whispered? The vision and practice of those who yearned, as lovers, for intimate connection with God. They longed to see beyond the two-dimensional, dualistic, and materialistic nature of things. And how did they know that there was more to life? From their history and their hearts.
Once upon a time a wealthy son of an idol maker heard something that set him free from the emptiness of mere worldly power. He left everything outside him to gain everything inside himself. They knew that stuttering prince of Egypt saw a burning bush and his life changed. They sang about a beautiful king of Israel who wanted nothing more than to live in God’s house. And they knew from their own time of terror that God was with them and wanted them to keep on singing.
Torah is called fire because it will consume those who are unprepared for its Kabbalah, its deepest wisdom. The Talmud, regarded as a rational commentary on the Torah, warns us with the following story: In the first century, four great sages encounter a pardes, an “orchard” containing the tree of life, and it is from this Hebrew word that the English word paradise is derived.
The first sage, Rabbi Akiba, enters the orchard. He is the oldest and best prepared for the experience. When he returns to his three friends, he warns them not to succumb to the illusions their minds would create within the hidden garden. Marble will look like water, he says.
The saintly Elisha ben Azai enters and dies because his soul, so eager to find its source, instantly sheds its physical body. Remember people jumping ecstatically off cliffs in the sixties on LSD? Elisha ben Abuyah enters, and because he unknowingly still doubts that One creates and connects all, he sees more than one God and instantly becomes an apostate. And Ben Zoma, who has yet not reconciled ordinary life with visionary experience, loses his mind.
What do you imagine that they saw? I don’t think that this is a superconscious, high reality; it’s something that we all know: it is our collective inherited knowledge. A long time ago, maybe in infancy or before we were even born, we knew how to see beyond the physical into the heart of the universe. Mystical scholar Daniel Matt says that the immediate reality of God is not foreign to us; it was once our original nature. In the Garden of Eden, we were wedded to God. Who divorced whom? The original sin is that we have lost our intimate connection with the divine.
I entered the orchard when I was eleven years old. I was walking with my sister on a crystalline October day near my grandmother’s house by the Great South Bay on Long Island. We were talking about things beyond ourselves, and suddenly, between our words, the scent of the salty air mingled with the fall leaves crunching under our feet, and the light of the day, became intoxicating.
At that moment I knew that I would spend the rest of my life searching for and being ready for God’s nearness. This is the moment when we know that “something” beyond our physical senses is here. This is what the Kabbalists call “yesh”, literally “there is.”
A friend of mind told me that she experienced this the first time she put her baby to her breast to nurse. This is our inheritance, this is our future, and this is our salvation. I invite you to take a moment to remember your own moments of such awareness. [Pause] Turn to a person sitting near you, preferably to one you do not know, introduce yourself, and in this place of memory, and say, “I’m here.” Here we all are this morning, in the orchard, seeing ourselves and one another in God’s light.
Tradition teaches that no matter how enlightened, one must be at least 40 to learn on this level, to enter the place of being face to face with God. So why am I risking our physical and spiritual lives this High Holidays by inviting all of us to enter the orchard?
Maybe because I’m a children’s book writer. The limited experience of children gives them imagination and great enthusiasm. These are the very qualities necessary to break from the ethical materialism that most of us call mature thinking. We see where we are today with such thinking. It takes true maturity to trust such an experience and know how to live with it not just as a child, but as a child of God.
Just as I invite children to imagine more than they can see or touch, I invite you to enter the orchard of mystery and miracle, and to claim it as authentic Judaism. We are more than rational existentialists. We need the part of Judaism that can offer more than ethics and law to a world wounded by violence, excessive materialism, and profound confusion. We also need what the Kabbalah we want to taste and live God, not just talk about it.
The Shema, the first blessing we learn and the last that we say, carries hundreds of esoteric meanings. I may not remember a tenth of them but I know when I say it, I am saying much more than a few words of Torah. Here is just one meaning. The Shema, with its six words, became linked to the six cities of refuge in Torah where an innocent person could hide from harm. The words of the Shema are cities of refuge for everyone who speaks them, a shelter from spiritual death when the world endangers us.
Because God spoke the world into being, language is holy and can create worlds. By making certain sounds and uttering special words we become part of creation. Instead of imagining the world made of atoms, the world is made of letters. It becomes a micrography, an image made of letters. The shape of a letter and its sound gives it new dimension beyond the rational mind.
And yet we are warned by the following story not to attach too tightly to letters, words, and prayers. Once upon a time there was a little boy whom we will call Shloime. He was so poor that he never went to school and didnÕt know how to read. He asked his father if he could go to shul on the High Holidays, and his father laughed. “All they do is read prayer after prayer, my son. You don’t know even a single prayer!”
Brokenhearted, Shloime went back to work in the fields. When Yom Kippur came, he watched the entire village enter the synagogue. Soon it began to buzz with chanting. Afternoon came and the sun began its descent. The air grew cold, the light began to fade, and still the rabbi did not end the service.
The rabbi was none other than the Baal Shem Tov, famous for his stories and his joy. But at the close of Yom Kippur he was not joyful, because he knew that despite the praying of all his people, God had not yet answered them. Somehow the prayers rang hollow and weren’t reaching heaven.
Shloime waited outside the door of the synagogue for his father until he could stand it no more. He had to tell God of his love, even if he didn’t know what to say. Running into the room, he began to speak the only Hebrew he knew, the alphabet. And with his entire heart, he sang the letters so loudly everyone stopped praying, astonished. “Get him out of here!” one man shouted angrily to the Baal Shem Tov, until he saw that the rabbi was smiling for the first time all day. “My friends,” the rabbi began, “We are finally ready to break our fast.”
We should not only know the words of prayer, we should make each of them a knock at heaven’s door. Let me in, God, each should say, and if they are said with the right intention, the alphabet is good enough.
Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh! Adonai tzvaot maloh chol haaretz kavodo. Holy, holy, holy is the God of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with God’s Glory. These are the words the angels say with us the very moment that our prayers rise and are received in heaven. Kabbalah tells us that prayer is the chariot that takes the soul on its journey through sound and word to the reaches of heaven.
May every word we say in prayer this High Holidays fill us with God’s glory. If we pray like the little boy who sang his alphabet, heaven will open within each word. We will not put the words in our mouth but that we will enter the word.
May our prayers this High Holidays help us to birth a new world that is waiting for our love.