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Parashat VaEtchanan 5774 — 08/06/2014

Parashat VaEtchanan 5774 — 08/06/2014

When you lie down and when you get up (6:7)

And in the Biur Halachah there he writes:

   The reason is that Lashon Hakodesh has many unique qualities that set it apart from other languages. It is the language that Hakadosh Baruch Hu uses to speak to His prophets, as the Ramban points out in Parshas Ki Tisa. Also, Chazal teach that the world was created with Lashon Hakodesh, as it is written, “This one shall be called ishah (woman) because from ish (man) was she taken” (Bereishis 2:23). In addition, when the 120 Sages of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah composed the text of our prayers, among them were several prophets, and together they deliberated over every blessing: what words it must contain and what combinations of letters must be present so that the text is replete with sublime ideas and hidden meanings. When we say the words composed by this great assembly, even if we do not have intention for the sublime and hidden meanings, it is still considered that we have prayed properly, for the words themselves work their holy effects on High. This is not the case if we pray in other languages. (Chafetz Chaim)

When I was a young boy, growing up in a Reform synagogue, much of our praying was in English (I believe the Reform movement has adopted – or re-adopted – many traditional forms of ritual, including praying in Hebrew to a greater extent, in the several decades since my youth).  Since I could barely read Hebrew, and couldn’t understand it at all, this was perhaps a good thing, but I always felt like something authentic was missing.  According to the Chafetz Chaim, I was absolutely correct.

We have discussed on a number of occasions that according to our esoteric tradition, the sounds of the Hebrew language have the same essential vibratory qualities as the objects and activities and structures to which they refer.  Thus, in some way, kisei conveys the subtle essence of “chair” better than “chair” or “chaise” or “Stuhl” or “yizi” do.  (OK, I had to look up the last one on the internet – it’s Mandarin, and no, I can’t write it in Chinese characters!)  On the basis of this correspondance, what we say in Hebrew has a greater effect on the cosmos than saying words with the same (or very close) meaning in, say, English.  While this is undoubtedly true even in ordinary conversation, in ordinary conversation we are focused on the meaning of the words almost exclusively.  We might also pick up on tone of voice and other affective clues, to discern what kind of emotional state the content is coming from, but as far as the actual sounds go, the meaning of the words is primary.

When we wish to communicate with Gd, I think the situation is quite different.  Certainly, Gd understands exactly what we are thinking or saying in whatever language we are using, or even if we use no language, and He is aware of our thoughts and actions at all times and every where we may be.  Nonetheless, when prayer time comes and we are actually engaged in prayer, there is another dynamic going on.  The prayer service has a very specific structure, and we use, at least as a framework, very specific words.  This entire structure was put together about 2500 years ago by the Anshei Knesset haGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly” that convened under Ezra in the newly-rebuilt Jerusalem, to reconstitute Jewish life   (The Knesset haGedolah had 120 members; the Israeli Knesset’s size was fixed at 120 members explicitly to recall the Anshei Knesset haGedolah as Jewish sovereignty was re-established in the Land of Israel once again.  The only difference is the lack of Sages and Prophets in the modern version.)

R. Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh haChaim, II:13, quoted in Iggeret haRamban, Artscroll edition by R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer) writes about the structure of the prayer service:

Some of these [men] were more than Sages – they were prophets as well.  What these men achieved can never be duplicated.  They invested each word of the liturgy with a power to affect all of creation, from the smallest atomic particle to the most enormous galactic mass. … Through them the Almighty Himself implanted within each word infinite power and unlimited effect.

Since no human being can possibly fathom the awesome depth of each word of prayer, one should rather pray with pure and simple intent. … He should concentrate on raising the words heavenward to their celestial source. … One who prays in this fashion will truly make an impact with  every word he utters.

Given the connection between speech in Hebrew and the structure of the universe, I think we can understand both R Chaim’s and the Chafetz Chaim’s words.  There are really two things that we are trying to accomplish when we pray.  First, of course, we are trying to connect our individual self with Gd, the Self of the universe.  That is, we want to allow our soul, which is in its essential nature infinite, to be able to transcend the boundaries of our physical existence and to reclaim its status as a “piece of the Divine from Above.”

The second objective is to correct any discrepancy in the cosmos – that is, we want to use our speech to align any influences that have gotten misaligned, by putting appropriate vibrations out into the environment.  For this of course, we must be using a language that in fact has the appropriate vibratory character, which would be Hebrew, and we would have to know exactly what set of vibrations are necessary, and in what sequence.  Since most of us are not at a level where we can figure this stuff out, we need to rely on those who can.  As R. Chaim explains, the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah, being prophets, had the level of insight that was required to codify a sequence of prayers that would be effective at all times.

I might point out that this understanding can explain why people seek out tzaddikim to ask them to pray on their behalf.  Speech comes from thought, and the thoughts of those who are more highly spiritually developed come from a deeper level, closer to the “celestial source” that R. Chaim mentions.  Thought and speech that is closer to its source is less diffuse and more focused and powerful, like the light of a powerful searchlight right next to the lamps.  Consequently, it is more effective in rectifying anything that needs rectification.  Nevertheless, at whatever level we are on, our liturgy is a powerful tool for good in our individual lives, and our lives as citizens of the cosmos.  Prayer, in whatever language, will bring us closer to the One to Whom we pray, and that, after all, is the entire purpose of our life!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 16: The Golden Mean and the Horse’s Path (Reshafim, 1958)

In this very early talk (R.Steinsaltz was only 21 at the time), R. Steinsaltz contrasts the ideal of the “Golden Mean” as espoused by Rambam (Maimonides), with the “extremist” attitude of the Kotzker Rebbe.  The Rambam was a great codifier and synthesizer; he worked during the flowering of Muslim culture in the middle ages, which rescued Greek philosophy and, eventually, passed it on to the West.  Rambam wrote one of the earliest codes of Jewish Law, and is one of the pillars upon which the authoritative code, the Shulchan Aruch, in use since the 16th century, is based.  As might be expected of one who attempted to harmonize Greek science and philosophy with revealed Torah, he espouses a path of moderation, the “Golden Mean” of the title of our essay.

R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) was asked once why he was so extreme.  He took his questioner to a window and told him, “Look out there – the middle of the road is the horse’s path – the people walk on the edges.”  Barry Goldwater (who had Jewish roots on his father’s side incidentally), once said “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  Perhaps he descended from the Kotzker.  The Kotzker of course was an extremist in regards to love of absolute truth and service of Gd.  Is that a vice?  Would Rambam actually disagree with him, and argue that temporizing with truth is OK?  Doesn’t Torah tell us to “keep far away from any falsehood”?

R. Steinsaltz harmonizes the two positions by noting that “middle of the road” can have two connotations.  One is the Horse’s Path – an avoidance of extremes out of fear of the abyss.  The other is the Golden Mean, which actually harmonizes both extremes by transcending them.  The first is like sleeping – a state of total inertia.  The second is more like a state of restful alertness, from which any possibility can arise.  The first is absolute falsehood – it is dead.  The second is absolute truth – it is the content of life itself.