Praying With Passion – The Purpose of Prayer

The Mitteler Rebbe’s Kuntres Inyan HaTefillah

Adapted into English by Rabbi Benyomin Walters

Edited by Rabbi Amiram Markel


This work will explain the general concept of prayer. We must begin by understanding how prayer works, its nature, why HaShem commanded that we pray, and what it accomplishes. After all, it appears that one lacks nothing without prayer. Is it not of upmost importance to fulfill the 613 commandments, whereas prayer is not included as one of them?[1]

We will understand how prayer relates to the commandments with an analogy from man. The human body is composed of 248 limbs and 365 connectors. The soul spreads throughout the body and gives it life. However, there is another essential component of the body, which is the staple of life, although it is not one of the 248 limbs or one of the 365 connectors. This is the spinal cord, which connects the brain with the rest of the body by way of 18 nerve coils that correspond to the 18 ribs. The truth is, without the spinal cord, a person would die. Even though the person has all 248 limbs and 365 connectors intact for the soul to enliven, still, without the spinal cord the limbs would all be disconnected from the soul, because there would be no way for them to connect without the spinal cord.

This is also true in Jewish law—if the spinal cord of an animal is severed, the animal is considered mortally wounded (treif). Thus we see that without the spinal cord, the body cannot live. Life and consciousness depend mostly on the nervous system to connect them all into a single organism. On the other hand, the other organs are also necessary, and the body is only a complete living human being when both the nerves and the organs function together. Just as the body cannot live without the spinal cord, the spinal cord cannot live without the other organs.

From this analogy we understand the function of prayer. Although prayer is not one of the 248 positive commandments or one of the 365 prohibitions, still, prayer is the main element that connects a person to HaShem. Without prayer, it is possible for a person to fulfill all of the 248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions and still be detached from HaShem, blessed be He. And when a person is detached from HaShem, he is considered to be [spiritually] dead—just like a severed spinal cord is a mortal wound (treif). Just as the spinal cord connects the brain to the body through the 18 nerve coils, so too [the 18 blessings of the Amida] prayer connect HaShem’s Essential Self to every Jew, each according to his level, so that he will not (G‑d forbid) be detached from His unity and oneness.

This concept is explained in the Zohar about [Yaakov’s dream recorded in the verse], “A ladder standing on the ground, its top reaching the heavens”: This ladder represents prayer. A ladder allows one to bring something up much higher than he can normally reach, or bring something down from such a place. Without a ladder, one would have to remain down on the ground. In this sense, a ladder is something that unites a high place with a low place. Similarly, every Jew lives a very physical life in a material world, but through his prayers he is able to elevate all of the sparks of G‑dliness that fell down into evil (G‑d forbid), and bring them all the way up to HaShem’s essence. This is what the Zohar means when it says that the “ladder” is prayer.

The verse continues, “…and angels of G‑d where climbing up and down the ladder.” Angels are called the “messengers that transmit G‑dliness and blessings.” These angels are the forces that bring revelation of G‑dliness down to a person—each on his level. These are called “Ministering Angels.” There are also angels that bring the love and fear of the Jewish People up to the Essence of G‑dliness—the Infinite One, blessed be He. These angels are called chariots. We will explain these two elements of prayer. This is the meaning of the verse, “…and angels of G‑d where climbing up and down the ladder”: this process occurs in every individual—in every Jew through his prayers. It is in this sense that prayer is called a ladder, as we explained.

We must understand this further—why is it the spinal cord, specifically, that connects? The reason is that the soul (consciousness) resides primarily in the brain. Even though the soul is expressed only through the other limbs of the body, each performing a specific function (unlike the brain, which is the general seat of consciousness); nevertheless, the actions of the limbs and organs are all controlled by the brain and they only act according to its directives. However, the qualities and functions of the other organs are all secondary to the quality of insight (Chochmah) of the brain, as it says, “Chochmah brings life to he who possesses it,” and on the other hand, “He dies, without Chochmah,” meaning that a lack of insight causes death. Therefore, any place that the Chochmah (consciousness and insight) cannot reach, is dead. This is like the spinal cord: it extends from the brain, and is (a mass of nerves) made from the same substance as the brain. Therefore, the spinal cord is able to transmit the light (consciousness) of the soul of the brain [to the body] and if any part of the spinal cord is severed, the body is treif (incapable of sustaining life).

The same applies to the service of HaShem: The 248 positive commandments are called the “248 limbs of the King,” so to speak. Each mitzvah reveals G‑dliness in a unique way (just as each limb expresses the soul in a unique way). This is true even though the Essential Self of HaShem never changes, G‑d forbid, as it says, “I am HaShem, I do not change.” Nevertheless, this is not so in regard to how HaShem reveals Himself. HaShem is omnipotent; therefore He can reveal Himself in one mitzvah specifically in one way and in another mitzvah in a different way.

In this way the souls can grasp G‑dliness in the upper and lower Garden of Eden; through the mitzvos they grasp the Infinite One, Blessed Be He, in various ways—knowing how HaShem acts and the nature of G‑dliness—so that they may enjoy infinite pleasure from this knowledge, as it says, “It is better that he be judged so that he may enter to the World to Come.” This is analogous to how the soul is expressed in the limbs of the body: it is not expressed in the same manner in each limb, however it all is a revelation of the same soul; it all is the same person, and it is impossible to view any of these expressions as something independent of that person. On the contrary, a person is only complete when he has all 248 limbs functioning properly. Similarly, so to speak, HaShem is called the Soul that fills the (mitzvos, which are called the) body, because “You are in them all.” See the entire teaching there (in the Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar, Pasach Eliyahu).

The ability to be nullified to the Infinite One, blessed be He, shines in every Jew and in the Commandments, which are the 248 limbs of the King. This is called the soul, and is referred to as the Koach Ma”H, the power of nullification. This has the same letters as the word Chochmah—insight. This ability resides in the brain. This G‑dly vitality must shine into every aspect of life, until one can see nothing else in every aspect of life. This means that when performing the mitzvos of sukah, lulav, tefillin, and all the other Commandments, the 248 the limbs of the King, one must permeate these acts with G‑dliness until he sees them as pure G‑dliness and nothing else. Such mitzvos can be a fitting home for HaShem, blessed be He—much like the limbs of the body house the soul. Then, one will see the 248 Commandments as a single, unified and complete person built of 248 limbs—as it says, “On the throne there sat the likeness of a man.”

This is the true meaning of the “Man of Holiness” (the likeness of man on the Divine Chariot). In each and every Jew there is a throne, so to speak, where HaShem resides through the 248 positive Commandments. The Torah is called light, which is HaShem’s wisdom. The 248 Positive Commandments are vessels for the light of HaShem. (Thus, the Torah and the mitzvos are like body and soul) and both elements exist in every Jew. The angels are called the Chayos Hakodesh (Holy Animals, but can also be rendered as Holy Vitality) that support the throne and represent the holy vitality of G‑dliness that shines within every Jew. The Chayos Hakodesh lift the throne, until it can reach all the way to the Essential Self of the Infinite One, blessed be He. After all, it is well known that the source of the Commandments is nothing less than the Essential Self of the Infinite One, blessed be He. This is analogous to how when the limbs are animated with life they can accomplish some act that tangibly benefits the essential self of the soul. In this sense, the physical limbs are greater than the spiritual life‑force that animates them. Yet, the limbs only have this ability when they are alive. A dead limb accomplishes nothing. In this sense, the life‑force that fills the limbs is greater. And actually, each needs the other and only both together are truly beneficial. After all, light without a medium to express it reveals nothing, whereas a medium with any light to express is lifeless.

The connection between light and vessel, soul and body, which unites the highest with the lowest, is the spinal cord—although it is not itself counted among the 248 limbs or 365 connectors. Similarly, one can only attain the holy “likeness of a Man” with the help of the unifying power of prayer. It is in this sense that the 18 blessing of the Amida are called the 18 nerve coils of the spinal cord, as was explained, and severing the spinal cord means death.

All of this describes the state of one who does not pray at all, G‑d forbid. There is another malady, however, where the spinal cord is intact, but it becomes dry, G‑d forbid. Even if there is a little moisture, one can eventually die if it becomes too dry. Similarly, there is a sort of prayer—due to our many sins—in which one prays without any life or feeling. Yesterday was exactly like today and so will be tomorrow. There is no passion, which is the water that makes the tree (the sefiros of holiness, the “Man of Holiness”) grow, so to speak, as it says, “You are the One that waters this tree with flowing water… which is like the soul to the body.” See the entire teaching there, (in the Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar, Pasach Eliyahu).

The main point is that without prayer, one becomes detached, G‑d forbid, from HaShem, blessed be He. This is a state of spiritual death and of being spiritually broken or shattered, as it says, “They abandoned Me, the source of living water, to dig for themselves broken wells that cannot hold water.” Physically, this is comparable to a receptacle: if it is broken, it is no longer fit as a vessel and can no longer serve its original purpose. So too, the 248 limbs and 365 connectors of every Jew’s body exist in order to serve as instruments to reveal G‑dliness and receptacles for HaShem’s light. Through this, the person assumes the holy likeness of a Man, as explained.

Nonetheless, if one does not increase the strength of holiness through his prayers, even if he goes through the motions of praying, it is like having a dry spinal cord. Such a prayer will not prevent one from falling into the lowest depths, G‑d forbid. He might become egocentric and detached from HaShem. This state is metaphorically referred to as dead and broken vessels, G‑d forbid, which is completely contrary to holiness. In such a person, the supernal life of holiness cannot reside without the person first undergoing true teshuvah. This is possible, because teshuvah preceded the creation of the world [and HaShem’s desire for teshuvah is the original motive for the world]. Before the world was created, HaShem created teshuvah, because the source of teshuvah functions in the manner of a rebounding light[2] that reaches higher than the source of all worlds. This allows teshuvah to repair all blemishes, sins, and errors. This will suffice for the understanding.

[Summary: Torah study and fulfillment of the commandments are only vessels or receptacles for G‑dliness—like the body to the soul. However, they require prayer to connect them to HaShem, or else they remain detached from Him—similar to how the spinal cord and nerves connect the body to the soul. Without prayer even one’s Torah and mitzvos remain detached from HaShem, and one’s material pursuits become completely self-centered.]

[1] According to many opinions.

[2] Rebounding light represents HaShem’s desire and pleasure in our efforts and accomplishments. The original purpose of creation is for our work. Therefore, HaShem created the world so that it is always possible for us to correct our mistakes and sins through teshuvah.

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