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The Elements of Jewish Living

Standing Before G-d

By Rabbi Sender Haber

About twenty years ago, my father was on his way to a meeting with a prominent philanthropist. On the way he stopped at a red light and happened upon Rabbi Avigdor Miller, who was taking a walk. Somebody chose this moment to introduce my father to Rabbi Miller and they got into a very involved conversation. The light changed to green and to red and back again and my father mentioned that he was late for a meeting, but Rabbi Miller just kept on asking questions as he tried to get to know my father. Finally my father was dismissed and he came to his meeting apologizing profusely. “Don’t say a word!” the man said, “Rabbi Miller just called me and explained.”

That man became one of my father’s most generous supporters, but I have always had trouble understanding Rabbi Miller’s actions. I still don’t understand them, but I can say this: when Rabbi Miller did something he did it with his entire being. He wasn’t looking around and thinking about what he was going to do next or how to solve the world’s problems. He was talking to you. Perhaps the price to pay was the need to pick up the pieces afterwards, but at the time of the conversation he was totally and completely focused.

As I tell my students, undivided attention means just that: undivided attention.

In Jewish thought our beings are split into four parts: our actions, our emotions, our intellect, and our Neshamos. When we deal with other people we are often tempted to use just one facet of our being. Sometimes we just go through the motions of saying hello and being nice. Sometimes we become emotionally involved in their lives. Sometimes we spend a lot of time analyzing them and understanding them intellectually. Sometimes, especially in the case of siblings and other relatives, we are content to just be soul mates. We don’t feel that any other gestures are necessary.

The truth is that all four facets of our being need to be in play when we are communicating with another person. We need to show interest, feel interest, be interested and – ideally - connect on a soul level.

Rabbi Krohn says, “If you marry a girl for her money you will lose interest quickly”, and it is true. If we are only connected on one level (maybe) it is obvious that the relationship will not go very far.

When we wake up in the morning and thank G-d for our eyes, our hands, our feet, our clothing and our bodily functions we are connecting with Hashem on a very physical level. That is important and necessary. We live a physical life and we need to make sure to be thinking about Hashem as much as possible. Still, we cannot be content with connecting to Hashem in this physical world. We need to take it up a notch. We need to become emotionally involved and recite poetry to G-d. We do this by reading the Psalms of Pesukei Dezimra. We take a few minutes out of our day to get poetic with Hashem.

Several years ago I attended a beautiful wedding. At the end of the wedding I happened to notice a rabbi call the caterer over to his table. He complimented the food and the setup but complained that the ice cream had been too frozen. The caterer had placed bowls of hot water next to the ice cream to heat up the spoons and the rabbi felt that was lacking in propriety.

I don’t know what bothered me so much about this encounter but it may have had something to with the fact that I had been in this rabbi’s shul the shabbos before and his drosha had been on the importance of kugel.

To be sure, it is important to honor shabbos with kugel and to celebrate weddings beautifully, but it can’t stop there. We need to bring our hearts into it. We need to rise above the food and enjoy the wedding and the Shabbos meal for what they really are.

After connecting to G-d on both practical and emotional levels we make our way up to intellect. We say the Shema in which we discuss G-d’s oneness, reward and punishment, and the eternal covenant that we have with Him.

When we deal with people we often have the luxury of not connecting on an intellectual level because it is just too painful or inconvenient. With Hashem, it is important that we take time each and every day to go over the philosophy of our relationship and the basics of Judaism that are contained in Shema.

Finally, as we finish the Shema, we are ready to go beyond the actions, the emotions, and the intellect. With the words of Shemona Esrei we are totally soul. We have a spiritual connection with Hashem that transcends anything that we have discussed. It goes beyond kugel, beyond poetry, and beyond philosophy. It is where we try to become one with Hashem. We stand absolutely still and try not to be involved in this world at all. There is nothing but us and Hashem. It doesn’t matter if a snake crawls up our ankle or a sefer falls on the floor. We are no longer of this world.

Within Shemona Esrei we deal with the physical, the emotional, and the logical, but the general stance is one of total Neshama.

The Shulchan Aruch (98) writes that we need to daven Shemona Esrei as if we are facing the Shechina. We need to rid ourselves of all outside thoughts and envision Hashem standing before us. We need to imagine that we are in heaven. The ‘chasidim harishonim’ were able to shed all physicality and rise to the level of prophecy.

We say Shemona Esrei quietly because we do not want to disturb the people next to us. Kabbalistically, there is another reason. By whispering the words of Shjemona Esrei we are engaging as little of our body as possible. In fact, the repetition, in which we don’t even speak, is considered to be an even higher plane above the spoken Shemona Esrei.

These four levels of prayer correspond directly to the worlds of Atzilus, Briah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah. If G-d is in the world of Atzilus and we are in the world of Asiyah, the aim of our davening is to rise through the worlds and stand before G-d.

Kabbalistic Siddurim outline this clearly. At the top of each page is a header reminding the person which world he finds himself in. To daven properly is to experience each of these worlds in our relationship with Hashem.

As we finish Shemona Esrei and tachanun we go down the same way we came up. We read say the Kedusha again, followed (in Nusach Sefard) by the Tehillim of the Shir Shel Yom and finally Aleinu. In Aleinu we acknowledge that there are great heights to be attained but we are of this earth and we are here to bring Hashem into the world of Asiyah.

The Maor Vashemesh writes that the bells on the garments of the Kohein Gadol were designed to bring him back down to this world after the intensity of the Avodah. I once heard from the Nodvarna Rebbe that Avraham sat outside his tent when speaking with G-d because he knew that he would need passersby to bring him back down to reality.

Rav Shimshon Pincus tells a story about the kabbalist Soliman Mutzafi. Chacham Mutzafi would sit in Zichron Moshe and daven for hours as minyanim came and went. One time, he was attending a minyan when the Chazzan finished Shemona Esrei and began Kaddish without taking three steps back. He began to yell, “You are still in Atzilus!” The chazzan was probably lucky to remember that he was even in shul, but to Chacham Mutzafi it was all very real.

Another parallel to these four worlds is the Beis Hamikdash. As the Kohen entered through the Temple Mount, the courtyard, the Heichal, and the Holy of Holies, he would rise through these four stages and come closer to G-d. That is why we often repeat things three times in Davening. We are raising ourselves upwards toward G-d and simultaneously inwards toward our Neshamos.

When I walk down my block, I try to say hello to all of my neighbors. They all know me and enjoy saying hello. In most cases we are just going through the motions of being good neighbors, but in some cases there is the emotional element too. I helped one guy find a job, one guy was my neighbor in Buffalo, another spoke to me through the death of his parents and his divorce, another came to us for the seder. When those people say hello, we are actually connecting on an emotional level. The bochur across the street is an entirely different story. We used to be chavrusos. We have spent hours discussing philosophy and there is an intellectual connection when we meet. There has been a meeting of the minds. And then there is my family. We connect at the soul level. Even if we wouldn’t talk or emote or think together we would still be connected. This connection, especially in the company of the other three facets of our beings is the strongest connection on the block.

When we daven we need to make sure that we are connecting on every level. We can’t just wave to Hashem, but we can’t just levitate to heaven either. We need to go through the motions of thanking Hashem for our physical well-being, following it up with the poetry of Dovid Hamelech, rising to the intellectual world of Shema, and finally trying to lose it all and connect heart to heart with Hashem.

The Chassidim Harishonim would spend an hour preparing for prayer, and hour praying, and an hour coming down form prayer. If we can get that Heart to heart connection for just a moment, all three hours of prayer are worth it.

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