Divrei HaTefillah: Baal Shem Tov, selection from section Peh Chet of Amud HaTefillah
This was written in 5777 and is intended for use as a kavvannah or meditation before Pesukei Dezimra, verses of praise, on a Shabbat or chag morning.
Before we begin our davening this morning with Pesukei DeZimra or psalms of praise, I want to offer a brief kavannah or intention for our prayers. Many do not realize that Judaism has a longstanding rich and varied meditative tradition. Mystical or contemplative modes for entering into our prayers are very much a part of our tradition, and I believe that they can be excellent vehicles for connecting with the words in our siddur which I know for so many of us are quite difficult to grasp. I want to give over a brief teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism about prayer. In his Amud HaTefillah, the Baal Shem Tov speaks a great deal about focusing on the individual letters of the words which comprise our prayers as a mystical vehicle for ascending into greater levels of consciousness. There is an idea that this form of contemplative practice is also a deeply ecstatic one, and the more a person immerses themselves into the letters of the prayers, the greater the ecstasy. Ultimately, one should be so immersed and so wrapped up in the ecstasy of the moment that the words of prayer, which as we know are often spoken aloud become inaudible. It is as though through the vehicle of our speech, we simultaneously enter into our prayer and go beyond it. Our intense meditation and concentration upon the letters of the prayer, for the Baal Shem Tov, serves as a vehicle for connecting with the divinity that is found within each letter. You may be familiar with the idea that the Torah is the blueprint for creation or that before anything else existed, there was a primordial Torah of sorts. The Hebrew letters that make up the Torah and likewise our prayer books are a physical, tangible manifestation of that divinity we are trying to connect to. I often think of this as a way of achieving cosmic union with God through the vehicle of spoken prayer. Nevertheless, this state of cosmic unity, which the Baal Shem Tov also illustrates by describing the individual as going through the four worlds of classic Kabbalah as they ascend in greater consciousness, sounds quite unattainable. How might this admittedly complicated and confusing teaching impact our prayer lives? Though many of us yearn to experience some kind of divine encounter when we pray, that yearning often goes unrequited.
Pesukei DeZimra is a time in our service for us to warm up for prayer. Pesukei Dezimra can feel like a lot of words that we move through rapidly, without the kavannah with which they were intended to be recited. Traditionally, this portion of our service is seen as a means of giving us space to cultivate the kavannah for Shacharit and beyond. This morning, I want to encourage us all to adapt this teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. Is there a particular line that jumps out at you from the text or cries out to you? Is there a line you don’t understand and want to immerse yourself in? Take that one line, focus your attention and intention upon the words, the letters, and how they all fit together to form the whole of the verse. What comes up for you as you immerse yourself wholly in that line? Do you find you no longer hear yourself saying the words or, put another way, that your prayerful experience transcends the words? Though the intensity of the Baal Shem Tov’s meditative practice might feel unattainable, I think that we can use his focus on contemplative and ecstatic prayer to enliven our own prayer lives.