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A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth

A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth: Part 21 – Two Meditative Prayers

The most fundamental meditation is the Shema–the quintessential statement of monotheism–which translates into English as "Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One."This statement is followed by another: "Blessed is His Name whose Glorious Kingdom is Forever and Ever."

The first verse proclaims God's transcendence–that He includes all of creation yet is infinitely greater than that. It instructs us to hear and know that God's ultimate and unknowable essence is identical with the life force of the material world, even as expressed through the physical laws of nature. (This is why in Hebrew two different names of God are used in this verse: the unique four-letter Name, the Tetragrammaton, which we are forbidden to pronounce; and the Name of God which appears throughout the Genesis story of creation and whose numerical value is equal to hateva "nature.")   

To appreciate the indivisible unity between these two seemingly contradictory aspects of God (that which is above and untouched by nature and that which is nature) is to resolve the riddle of how the "infinite" can be contained within the "finite." The process of growing toward God is the process of understanding and internalizing the ultimate implications of this truth.

The second verse declares God's immanence, that He is equally present within every point of reality. His "glorious kingdom"–meaning the perfection that exists even now, hidden within the seeming imperfection of physical reality–is, was, and will be constantly present. The only change is the extent to which it is revealed by the outer layers of reality. As creation evolves more of this inner beauty becomes apparent at the surface.

The words of the Shema are not just abstract concepts. They have real power. When we recite this affirmation, in Hebrew, with deep understanding, we actually transform physical reality in accordance with its truth. Through the first verse we draw down light into the world, elevating its physicality, and furthering its purpose as a vehicle for Godliness. Through the second we bring about a revelation of the point of good that vitalizes every object and every moment.

As the most complete statement of ultimate truth within the Torah, the Shema has been a perfect source of inspiration to Jews throughout the ages. It is recited at least twice daily and at the point of death–the ultimate affirmation as one's last thought, the surrender of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom focused on this one truth. Because of its maximal conciseness, the Shema is the perfect focus for contemplation; each word is significant and possesses the power to draw forth insight related to its deeper meaning.

Because it provides a glimpse of what it means to experience intimacy with God, the Shema serves as the ideal preparation for the peak experience of Jewish prayer–the Amidah (the standing, silent prayer composed of nineteen blessings). In the Amidah, we enter into direct communion with the innermost essence of God. Indeed, the sages use the word prayer (tefilla) as a synonym for the Amidah.

The Amidah integrates not only our personal requests of God but also, simultaneously, reflects God's deepest desires for His creation, and therefore enables our greatest possible intimacy with Him. It is this deep communion that constitutes the very essence of prayer. This is also where meditation is so helpful, as an aid in concentrating on the words and their meanings; this fixed point of focus actually creates the possibility of communion, and at its culmination, it becomes the meeting place between God and the soul. At that moment, the relationship between supplicant and God as "He," which characterizes meditation, shifts into an encounter with God as "You," which is the basic word of prayer. Thus the real focus in prayer is not upon the words of the liturgy, but upon the "You" to whom they are addressed.

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