A teaching of R. Elimelech of Lizhensk, from Noam Elimelech, Vayechi
And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt… ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים Genesis 47:28
The Gemara tells the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (1). It was said of him that when he prayed over a sick person, he would say, “This one will live” or “This one will die.” They asked him, “How do you know?” He answered them, “If my prayer is shegura in my mouth then I know it has been received, but if it is not then I know that it has been rejected.” (2)
The word shegura [usually translated as “fluent”] is not easily understood. He could have said, “If my prayer leaves my mouth without hesitation…” To understand this we must understand the reason why a sick person is healed when a tzaddik prays over him, for it seems as if there has been some change in the Creator (which we should not even think!), Who is truly of one single and simple essence. But the fact is that all the worlds and every created thing existed before Creation in potentia in the Ayn Sof (3), until it arose in G0d’s will (so to speak) to create them, to manifest their potential. Therefore, everything that will be already has been in the Ayn Sof: that this one should get sick, and the tzaddik should beseech for him in prayer, and also that the Holy One of Blessing should desire the prayer of the righteous, for through his prayer he cleaves to the Creator, and this brings great delight to the Omnipresent One. So we find that there is no change at all, only the manifestation of what already was.
And it is written in the holy books the reason why sometimes two people meet and right away feel bound by a great love for each other – it is because they were neighbors in Gan Eden (4), and now that they meet, that love that they felt for each other in Gan Eden is roused once again. And this is what Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa meant by “If my prayer is shegurah,” as in “well-known” – that he recognized that this sickness and this prayer were beside him in potentia in the Ayn Sof, and so he already knows them, just like soul-mates who meet each other for the first time yet seem to know each other. That is how he knows his prayer is accepted, because it had always been, and there is no change at all…
Now the essence of living for the righteous person is to cleave to the Creator through prayer, and the essence of the righteous one’s prayer is for the Holy Shekhinah (5). This is the meaning of “And Jacob lived in the land of Mitzrayim,” for MiTzRaYiM is MiTzar YaM — “the suffering of the Sea,” that is, the Shekhinah — for it is through “feeling the suffering of the Shekhinah” that he gains life, which is closeness to the Creator (6).
1) Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was a wonder-working rabbi of the 1st century, known especially for the power of his prayer. As such he is a prototype of the Hasidic rebbe. 2) Shegura can mean “well known” or “fluent.” It is an unusual enough word that Rashi explains it in his commentary to the Talmud. This passage comes from Masechet Berachot 34b. 3) Ayn Sof means “Without End,” and is the mystical term for God in the most transcendent and “purest” sense. The Ayn Sof is how God existed alone, before the Creation, and is that from which all the other aspects of God, and the worlds, emanated. The Ayn Sof is beyond all categories, including time, which is why everything that ever has or ever will exist already existed in the Ayn Sof since before Time began. 4) Gan Eden is the Garden of Eden, that spiritual paradise from which all souls come and to which they will return. 5) The Shekhinah, literally “in-dwelling” or “presence” of God, is the immanent (and usually feminine) aspect of God. Tradition holds that when the Temple was destroyed and Israel exiled, the Shekhinah, which had until then dwelt with Israel in the Temple, chose to go into exile with the people rather than return to Her home above with the transcendent aspect of God. This is one of the fundamental “breaks” in the world and, according to Jewish mystical tradition, it is the mission of every Jew to reunite the “wife” and “husband” through holy deeds. 6) The Shekhinah is called the Sea in the sense of “all rivers flow to the sea,” that is, everything comes from and returns to Her.
There you have it. It’s not often that a text comes right out and says ikkar hahiyut shel hatzaddik he, “The meaning of life for the righteous person is…” And the answer: “to cleave to the Creator.” That’s why Rebbe Elimelech can take such a simple verse as “And Jacob lived in the Land of Egypt” and turn it into a teaching on joining with the Shekhinah in prayer. If that’s what it is to live as a righteous person, then how could the Torah not be teaching it, no matter what it seems to be talking about on the surface?
It strikes me, too, that a couple parshas before we have the phrase vayeshev Yaakov be’eretz megurei aviv, be’eretz cena’an, “Jacob dwelled in the land of his father’s sojourns, in the Land of Canaan” (Gen. 37:1) — it seems the words “dwelled” and “lived” are switched. Shouldn’t the impermanent “dwelled” be used in Parshat Vayechi, in Egypt, the original and archetypal diaspora, and “lived” be reserved for living in the Promised Land, where Jacob spends Parshat Vayeshev? But maybe Elimelech’s teaching can answer this, too. Jacob had always longed to return to the Land of Israel, and had prayed for that very thing upon leaving it: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house–the Lord shall be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21). But his desire to live there was bound up in his own self-concern (which is why he is criticized by so many commentators for this prayer). As long as that was the case, he was only dwelling, forever rootless; it was only when he learned, as the Noam Elimelech points out to us here, that the essence of a righteous life is concern for God and Her universal suffering, that he could be said to truly live.
This teaching also answers the objection, raised by many moderns (though it is not a modern objection!), that prayer doesn’t make sense because, if God is truly all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, what’s the point of trying to convince God of our own point of view? As Elimelech points out, this objection is based on an entirely fallacious understanding of what prayer is. We are not trying to convince God of anything because, not only is it not sensible, it’s not even possible, because God doesn’t change! Instead, we are trying to cleave to God, and this often happens through expressing our desires and our needs to our Maker (doesn’t the same connection happen in marriages?), and in this cleaving we hope to recognize what already exists in the ways of the Infinite. How many of us were ever shown this understanding of prayer? And how many of us might not have given up praying once we realized it doesn’t always get us what we asked for?