Why Pray? by David Hartley Mark

Yesterday, following Shabbat Services and Kiddush Refreshments—a wonderful Senior Bat-Mitzvah Reunion—my Discussion Group gathered in the Bet Midrash/Chapel of Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, and I delved into one of my favorite areas of Kabbalah: Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), the Ari HaKadosh, the “Holy Lion” of Tsfat (Safed, pronounced SA-fed), Israel. He himself did not write a book—indeed, he died very young—but his works were recorded by a fellow Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570).

This was a time of great crisis for the Jewish People. Influenced by the Inquisition, their Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had expelled them from Spain, where they had dwelled unmolested (relatively speaking) under Muslim rule for about 1,000 years. Persecuted, unsafe, made to wander worldwide (indeed, their peregrinations would soon take them to the New World), they struggled to find an inscape in which to hide—intellectual by nature, their thinkers began to develop the Kabbalah, which began to reach its fullest development during this Spanish-Israeli period (There are several Kabbalahs, each according to the background, culture, and country of its scholarly developers).

This made perfect sense, intellectually: after all, their God had promised that they were the “Apple of His eye,” and were meant to be a “Light Unto the Nations”—so why were they being persecuted? There had to be some hidden meaning. Kabbalah supplied that.

One of the bases of Lurianic Kabbalah is its philosophy of the Creation of the Universe. Here is my greatly simplified version.

When God planned to create the Universe, all that Was was full of God. (I can’t say the Universe, because it didn’t exist. Not yet.) So God had to perform a Tsimtsum, a Divine Self-Retraction, to pull back from one corner of the “Was,” to allow a Space in which to create the Universe.

I always compare this Tsimtsum, this Retraction, to your asking a very fat person sitting on a crowded bus or subway if you can sit down next to them, requiring them to pull themselves back, to allow you some small space in which to sit down.

Anyway, God had to retract His (God is not a He; I use that only because English is a limited language) God-self away from just one small corner of the Was. Into that Now-Empty-of-God Space, God poured all of His Creative Energy, in the Form of Light—though I usually compare it to a sort of Divine Sperm, all-powerful, all-creative, almighty.

The Problem is that that poor, little, now-empty space, now-filled with all that Divine Light, could not withstand its awesome Power. And so it broke—and bits and pieces of Divine Light, mixt up with bits of Container, Husk, Shards, or Broken Vessel, went tumbling, lost and bouncing and alone, into the now-vastness of Universe.

What happened to that Lost Light? How do we gather it together again, and restore it to God, whence it came?

Everytime we pray, everytime we do a mitzvah, we gather up the “Sparks”—that is, the shards of Lost Light, and help to bring the Universe into a Place of Light and Joy, again. The Shards or Husks are Evil. The Light is Goodness.

“Every Mitzvah is a Candle, and the Torah, the Entire Divine Teaching, is Full of Light.”

It is the Ultimate Making Lemonade out of Lemons—or Separating the Light from the Darkness. See? There are so many Evildoers, hard at work in the World today. It is up to us, the Good People, to be the Light-bringers.

Turning away from this for a bit and into the original meaning of prayer, we find that, when primitive humanity looked at nature and their ability (or lack thereof) to survive, they decided upon a sort of theurgic magic—using the Divine Name of their God, or gods, to evoke changes in Nature.

Among the Jews, this resulted in the sacred calling of the “Baal Shem,” the “Master of the Name,” who could manipulate the Sacred Names of God to perform miracles—healing the sick, causing someone to recover, bringing material prosperity, and so on. Knowing the Name of a spirit, whether a good or evil one, became a powerful talisman. The “Rumplestiltskin” story is a perfect example of this. (I told it to my group. A number of them did not know it.)

A Baal Shem would write God’s Holy Name (there were literally dozens, even hundreds) on a parchment, and place it on the person of the sick patient, usually in an amulet. This sort of sympathetic magic might cause the ill person to recover—we see this practice being used even today, among holistic practioners, for religious people. (I was able to purchase a card with God’s Name on it at a Jewish bookstore.)

From there, I moved into a book I have grown to love, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Light Beyond: Adventures in Hassidic Thought, NY & Jerusalem: Maznaim Publishing Corp., 1981, “Sparks,” p. 235.

It speaks of the Sparks of Light that inhere to any object we use, eat, or wear—for example, if we eat lunch prior to going out to pray or do a mitzvah (holy deed), we release the Holy Sparks that are contained in that object. Our bodies separate out the nutrients, or the “light” from the food; we pass the “husks” from our bodies, as wastes. Even those wastes can enrich the soil or vegetation.

Another example: if there is an object that we cherish—I am, for example, in the habit of purchasing little “tchochkes,” or knickknacks, when I travel, which sit on my desk or bookshelves, and which serve to remind me of places I have been. Prior to our move from New Hampshire to Florida, I gave these away to friends and students as a remembrance of me—I no longer needed them. I passed the Holy Sparks they contained to someone else.

According to Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, “When People eat, drink, and utilize things, their main goal is to absorb the Sparks that exist in each thing. You must take care of your possessions because of the Sparks that exist in them. …When you finish rectifying all the Spakrs in something that relates to the Root of your soul, God sometimes takes it away and gives it to someone else. This is because Sparks still remain in this thing, which relate to another Root.” (Each soul contains a root; each root has a particular mission on this earth.)

Of course, every Family has much-loved heirlooms which generations pass down and use on various holidays or at family dinners—cups, plates, and other objects. These are very important, because they are full of Love. And it is important to pass them along while the old and the young are still living. “It is better to give with a Warm Hand than a Cold One,” is a morbid, but valuable, saying I grew up with.

Finally, passing on to the essential concept of prayer, the essence of Prayer is not only asking God for “stuff.” It is thanking God for giving us the ability, the duty, to serve others. And it is thanking God for being God, and for giving us the moral sense to act as if we are made in God’s image. It is judging one’s personal actions, and vowing to improve—that is a lifelong struggle.

It is also recognizing that everything that exists has some godliness in it. The same plastic that created the keyboard of the computer on which I have typing these words of Torah, of holiness, to teach others, might have been used to create a weapon to hurt others.

It is only our kavanah, our intention, which, together with God, can rectify all the wrongs in the world. “Do God’s will as if it were your will,” the Tradition tells us, “so that God will do your will as if it were His will.”

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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