Is prayer for us or for God?

“Moses,” by Marc Chagall

From Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushas Levi, Parshat Vaera.

And God [Elohim] said to Moses, I am the LORD [YHVH].  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱ־לֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה   Exodus 6:2

I heard a teaching in the name of my master, Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, on the verse from Proverbs, “A wise child brings joy to the father” (1). He taught that when a person serves the Creator, it brings pleasure to the Creator; likewise when we speak favorably of one another. When we serve the Creator, we must be sure that it is the divine joy we are seeking, and not our own pleasure. Nevertheless, when we say the prayer of Eighteen Blessings (2), we pray for ourselves, saying “grace us with knowledge,” “return us to You,” “heal us,” and so on in each blessing — but this is because the Creator takes joy in granting us goodness and blessing, and so our requests for ourselves are also for the good of God.

This is the meaning of what our sages said, that the light of Creation was created when the Holy One of Blessing wrapped Himself in light as with a shawl, and the divine glory shone from one end of the world to the other (3). The word for light in this teaching, orah, is in the feminine form, which represents receiving the divine bounty (4), and so the sages are really asking how we come to receive the divine bounty — for aren’t we supposed to serve only for the Creator’s joy and not to receive blessings ourselves? And the answer, that the Holy One of Blessing wrapped Himself in light, means that since the Holy One of Blessing takes joy in giving of His goodness to us, even when we pray for ourselves God takes joy in the giving, [and so we are praying for God] as I explained above.

This is the meaning of our verse, And Elohim said to Moses, I am YHVH. For Elohim is the divine attribute of receiving [or even taking], and YHVH is the divine attribute of endless giving (5), for the Holy One of Blessing gives us goodness and blessing, Amen.

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1) Proverbs 10:1   2) The Shmoneh Esrei or Amidah, the central prayer, recited at least three times a day. Most of the blessings are phrased as petitions.   3) Bereishit Rabbah 3:4: Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadah asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, “How [lit. from where] was the light created?” Rabbi Shmuel said, “The Torah teaches us that the Holy One of Blessing wrapped Himself in the light like a shawl, and the divine glory shone from one end of the world to the other.” Rabbi Shimon points out the basis for the verse in Psalms 104:2: “God wraps Himself in light like a shawl.” The relevant points here are that God manifests the divine Self in Creation, and that [since the word for “light” is feminine] this manifestation is specifically one of receiving. On a side note, the “shawl” is understood as God’s prayer shawl, and so this verse serves as the meditation before putting on our own prayer shawl, as we prepare to wrap ourselves in the divine light and imitate/manifest the divine self.   4) In Kabbalistic imagery, which is often very sexual, the aspect of giving is called “male,” while the aspect of receiving is called “female.” In this teaching from the sages, the text [unusually, and for no apparent reason] changes the masculine or from the Torah to the feminine orah, prompting the Kedushas Levi’s interpretation.   5) Bereishit Rabbah 33:3

Jeff says…

One of Hasidism’s most common teachings is that when we pray we actually (or ideally) pray for God. I have a sense that this is overstating the case a bit, to counter our natural tendency to want to pray for ourselves, seeing God as the giver and ourselves as the receivers. The true understanding of prayer, as the Kedushas Levi lays out pretty clearly here, is that both we and God are giving and receiving, and that any attempt to separate the two defies the true nature of divine reality. So the answer to the question, “Is prayer for us or for God?” is “Yes!” As usual, Hasidism removes the either/or question with a simple affirmation.

I think this understanding of our inseparability from God is one of the key purposes of prayer. The sages’ advise us to say one hundred blessings a day: before and after we eat, whenever we experience something beautiful or powerful in nature, whenever we do a mitzvah, and of course in the thrice-daily prayers. If we do that, uniting both divine attributes with the words Blessed are You, YHVH, our Elohim, then our entire lives will be a reminder of and a testament to the fact that our relationship with God and each other is one of constant giving and receiving with no possibility of distinguishing between the giver and the receiver. This is not only the purpose of prayer but of Creation, since God wanted nothing but to have someone to give to.

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This entry was posted in Concepts, Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Hasidic Masters, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev/Kedushas Levi, Nach/ Prophets and Writings, Parsha, Prayer, Proverbs, Vaera. Bookmark the permalink.

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