Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Guest Post: James Jacobson-Maisels
The following was originally published in the Pardes June Newsletter as a Dvar Torah by James Jacobson-Maisels. In the coming months, the blog will share some more concrete insights along this thematic angle.
R. Pinchas of Koretz, an early Hasidic master, taught, "The world thinks that one prays before/to the Holy One, blessed be He, but it is not thus. For prayer itself is truly (mamash) the essence of divinity. As it is written: He is your prayer and He is your God (Deuteronomy 10:21)." (Midrash Pinchas, Sec. 1:52, p. 37-38)
I clearly recall my first time reading this text and the excitement and wonder its radical call to rethink my entire approach to prayer engendered in me. Here R. Pinchas asks us to focus on the process of prayer itself. He challenges us to consider what it would it mean to not think of prayer as a secondary process, as an act of communication which reaches beyond itself, but to experience the process itself. He calls on us to experience the very words, movements and consciousness of prayer as divinity.
Such an approach opens our eyes to see that the divine is not out there somewhere but right here. Although it is also true that the divine is right here in the sense of being within each one of us, this is to say that the divine is right here in the sense of the full gestalt of the moment. When we take our three steps forward into the amidah we normally imagine ourselves as entering the presence of God, approaching the King.
Here, however, when we step into prayer we enter the very body of God. We merge into God's presence. Indeed, the very stepping itself is the flow and movement of the divine in and through us.
What if, before we prayed, we paused and recognized our body, words and movements as the body of God? What if we paused and saw the full totality of our experience as the presence of divinity in all its majesty and subtleness? What would it mean if we entered prayer with the intense mindfulness of this process being God, of walking through an ether of God, of our breath being God's breath, of our words being divinity itself and with the fundamental insight of non- separation and non-duality? How much care and mindfulness does such a conception draw forth when every letter, every sound, every phoneme, every shudder, every shuckle, every thought, every bow, every step and every moment is God's very being? Can we enter tefilah (prayer) with that consciousness and in doing so be radically brought up short, shocked out of our complacency and the sometimes rote nature of prayer?
We can all do this. It doesn't require us to believe anything in particular or to commit ourselves to some mystical perspective. It requires only the fundamental commitment to be fully present with the experience of tefilah, to recognize its permeated sanctity and to be unwilling to neglect any aspect or detail. It challenges us to cherish every instant as immersed in a sea of divinity.
That is the opportunity and challenge that R. Pinchas gives us - to see the very matter of our practice, its physicality and its process along with the thoughts, emotions, movements and sensations which make it up as the very presence of God's self.
Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Judaic Studies from Brown University and an M.St. in Modern Jewish Studies from Balliol College the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Jewish Studies specializing in Jewish mysticism.