When he was a young man, the Alter Rebbe decided to exile himself to a place of Torah study. He deliberated whether to go to the Vilna Ga’on or to the Maggid of Mezritch. Ultimately, he explained his decision to go to the Maggid of Mezritch, with the following statement:
“In Vilna, they learn how to study Torah, while in Mezritch they learn how to pray. I already know how to learn a little. But I know almost nothing about praying.”
Prayer is one of the things that are of preeminent importance in the upper worlds, but that people tend to take for granted in this world. Chasidut, which is sensitive to what is happening in the upper worlds, restored prayer from an act done by rote, to one that is honored and central in the service of God.
Why is prayer so important? It is Torah that is deemed “eternal issues of life” (חיי עולם). Torah is the revelation of God’s eternal wisdom, while prayer is occupied with the “passing issues of life” (חיי שעה) and focuses on requests for our changing needs. From its very inception, however, Chasidut emphasized that prayer is like a ladder with its feet on the ground, steeped in the changing conditions of life, while its head reaches into the heavens.
These are two central foundations of prayer:
The first is that prayer constitutes the primary expression of our absolute faith in God. It is the strongest pronouncement of God’s Presence in our lives, of His all-powerfulness, of the fact that He is the only address for all our requests; it also expresses our love for Him. When we turn to God for everything, large or small with a feeling of complete dependence on Him and with consummate trust in His good will toward us, it builds our intimate connection with Him. It is a connection in which men of flesh and blood can turn to the Almighty Himself with all their petty concerns.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, who held the simplest Jews in high esteem and revealed their connection to God’s essence, placed prayer as the foundation of serving God. Through prayer, the smallest of people can achieve a state of absolute cleaving to God, the same as the greatest of people who, in their prayers, must also strive to identify God in the same way that a young child would—without any concrete definitions or mental pictures.
However, the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples emphasized a second dimension of prayer, a more heavenly aspect: Recognizing that the root of all lack and hardship is to be found in the illness plaguing the holy Shechinah, which enclothes itself in our mundane reality, replete with all its difficulties. Armed with this recognition, the individual should elevate himself from his personal, physical stress and dedicate his prayer to healing and alleviating the general spiritual source of the problem as it is found in the Shechinah. In other words, instead of praying for himself, or even for a friend who needs heavenly help, a person should pray for the holy Shechinah, for the redemption of God’s Presence in the mundane.
The revelation that it is the Shechinah that is to be found distressed within our sorrows, elevates the Shechinah from the dust and reveals God’s glory in reality. When we turn to God in prayer, it reconnects the Shechinah with its Divine groom, as it were. This type of prayer is not only a request for a future change and healing. It brings about an immediate unification between the Holy, Blessed One and the Shechinah. As soon as this unification occurs, it has an immediate impact.
We might think that there is a type of tension created here: between prayer as an expression of our hopes that our minute, private, physical lacks, be solved and between prayer for the Shechinah which requires an expanded consciousness and divestment from the material. Indeed, this tension is not imagined. Sensitivity to the difficult state of the Shechinah is not an actual part of our physical experience. It is, however, an expression of our innermost vitality, which is itself one of the manifestations of the Shechinah. According to Chasidut, prayer should emerge from our essential being.
Indeed, this is not a tall order. Even a simple Jew does not feel that standing before God in prayer is the same as standing before an ATM and withdrawing money. No one demands his daily food, like a brazen dog claiming his meal. Every individual who stands in prayer is sensitive to the reality around him and turns to God with a request for compassion. He or she lovingly clings to their connection with God, and by doing so, elevates the Shechinah and unites it with its Divine groom.