The Middle Pillar

A teaching from the Baal Shem Tov on prayer, from Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Amud Hatefillah.

The Baal Shem Tov’s soul said to him, that he had merited that heavenly things be revealed to him not because he had learned much Talmud and Torah, but only because of his prayer, for he always prayed with great kavannah (1), and so merited to rise heavenward.

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1) Intention, concentration, focus

Jeff says…
This comes from a collection of teachings by the Baal Shem Tov on prayer called Amud Hatefillah, “The Pillar of Prayer.” I don’t know where the name comes from, but it makes me think of the saying in Pirkei Avot 1:2, “Shimon Hatzaddik said, On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on service, on acts of loving-kindness,” and of course “service” is the rabbis’ term for prayer, as in avodah shebalev, “service of the heart” (see Taanit 2a). This is the first of what I hope will be weekly posts from Amud Hatefillah, partly because the parsha comes, by definition, only once a week, but also because, as a teaching like this one shows, it would be a mistake to have a collection of Hasidic divrei torah and no divrei tefillah. I also think, of the three pillars on which the world stands, this one is the shakiest for modern Jews. As I discussed in “The Righteous Will Flower,” the Reform movement has made a religion out of gemilut hasadim and there is no question that outside of Orthodoxy the Conservative movement is the strongest in Torah, but in my opinion all three often miss the boat when it comes to prayer, which according to Rabbi Shimon is the middle pillar of the world. We have intellectualized it (“prayer is an affirmation of values”), psychologized it (“prayer is connecting with our deepest selves”), and socialized it (“prayer is a shared community experience”) — all of which are true, but along the way we have either forgotten or dismissed the fact that prayer is at its heart connecting with our Maker. Why do we so rarely leave our prayer services feeling like we just had a heart to heart with Ribbono Shel Olam? Abraham Joshua Heschel says “Prayer is spiritual ecstasy.” I’m hoping we can, with the help of the Baal Shem, make every davening spiritual ecstasy.

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