Three short teachings from the Baal Shem Tov on prayer, from Tzava’at Haribash and Amud HaTefilla.
When you pray and learn, you should do so in a low voice, yet with all of your strength — to shout with a whisper. This is the meaning of “All my bones will say, G!d, who is like You?” (1). For in cleaving to G!d your shouts become a whisper.
Sometimes it’s best to serve G!d with your soul only, that is, only in [the world of ] thought (2), and your body should only stand by, so that it does not fall sick from overuse. Sometimes a person can pray in great love and awe and fervor without moving at all, so that it seems to another as if he prays without any cleaving to G!d at all. In fact, this is a sign of greater cleaving and a higher form of service, for the prayer is entirely spiritual and divested of corporeality, and so the klipot (3) have nothing to grab on to and the prayer shoots straight and fast to G!d.
Sometimes you can say your prayers very quickly because the love of G!d burns in your heart so that the words fly out of your mouth on their own.
1) Psalms 35:10 2) Jewish mysticism posits four worlds between us and the Ayn Sof, the limitless and unknowable aspect of G!d: Action, Formation, Creation, and Emanation. As G!d’s divine, creative Light descends from Ayn Sof, it passes through each of these worlds, becoming less brilliant and more bearable with each passing, until it reaches our material world in a form that no longer overwhelms us, but instead allows us to exist as separate, conscious beings. As we ascend the spiritual heights, usually through prayer, we pass again through these four worlds, but in the opposite direction, divesting ourselves of corporeality and growing closer to the pure spirituality of the upper worlds and to the absolute unity of G!d. So when the Baal Shem Tov speaks of “serving only in thought,” he doesn’t mean just thinking the prayers (on the contrary, our lips should say the words) — rather, he means we should be dwelling in (or at least aiming for) that world of pure thought known as Atzilut, which means both “Emanation” [from G!d] and “Closeness” [to G!d]. 3) Klipot, literally “husks,” are the external and/or material aspects of reality, as opposed to the “holy sparks” the Hasidic masters speak of at such length, which are the purely spiritual aspects. Klipot can be characterized as benign obstacles to the spiritual life or as malevolent opponents to it; either way, they have to be overcome to “lift up the sparks.”
I like these teachings because they counter the specious idea of Hasidic prayer as jumping around and singing loudly. This is not to say that prayer in the Hasidic tradition can’t be loud and active, but it does mean that simply singing a niggun and doing your best shuckling does not make your prayer Hasidic (or more acceptable to G!d). I often hear people denigrate fast and quiet prayer as necessarily uninspired and mechanical, but here the Baal Shem Tov himself puts the kaibash on that idea. What matters is what’s happening on the inside, and the rest is just a vehicle.