Keeping it Real

Two teachings of the Baal Shem Tov on prayer, from Amud HaTefilla.

At first, when you wish to pray you should be in Yirah, fear and awe, for it is the gate opening unto G!d (1), and you should say in your heart, To whom do I wish to cleave? To the One who created all the worlds with His words, and who upholds them all and grants them existence! And you should contemplate G!d’s greatness and highness, and afterward you can be in the upper worlds.

There are some who pray in sadness, out of the melancholy that overwhelms them, and who think that they pray with great Yirah. There are also some who pray in a fiery mood, and imagine that this is Ahavah, love for G!d. But true Ahavah will bring such a feeling of inconsequence before the Creator that you will desire only to glorify G!d and vanquish your yetzer hara for Him (2). This is good. For a person is not called a servant of G!d without [both] love and awe. You should seek to have the Yirah fall upon you [from above], rather than mustering it up yourself. For the latter is called raising up the feminine waters (3), but true Yirah falls upon you with with fear and trembling, so that you don’t even know where you are, but your mind is [nevertheless] clarified, so that tears fall from it (4). But when it is not so, even though it may seem that you love the Creator, it really amounts to nothing! For Yirah is the gate to G!d, and it is the gate to Ahavah, and if you do not pass through this gate of Awe, how can you arrive at Love? So those who pray as I described above are not even servants, for they have not arrived at true Yirah, and their service is not fitting for a Jew at all. For they don’t serve G!d, but only do as they’ve been taught. Even though it seems to them as if they are serving G!d in joy, this is just game-playing (5). So they should return to G!d with all their heart and all their soul.

1) see Masechet Shabbat 31a-b   2) literally “the evil urge,” though I would rather translate it as “the selfish urge”   3) a sexual image in which G!d and we are lovers, G!d the man and we the woman.   4) Hasidism speaks of different forms of mind, including a “small mind,” the one with which we operate most of the time and which would tell us where we are physically, and the “big mind,” which is one of spiritual opening, and can tell us where we are spiritually (and, apparently, can shed tears as well).   5) the Hebrew, holellut, can be read even more strongly, in the sense of debauchery

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