Esther, the Mistress of Prayer
PurimBurst 2012 / 5772
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
HaShem said to Israel: “When the Temple was destroyed you cried out, ‘We are orphans. Our father has abandoned us…’ (Lam. 5:3). As sure as you live, the redeemer that will deliver you from your Persian tormentor shall also have no father or mother.” And so the Megilla records that Esther was an orphan, “she had no father or mother.” (Midrash Rabbah – Esther 6:7)
When Esther heard about the genocidal decree pronounced by the king she agreed to plead for her people’s pardon though in so doing she risked her life. That night, as she prepared for her life-threatening exploit, Esther donned sackcloth, loosed her hair, filled it with dust and ashes, afflicted herself with fasting and fell on her face before HaShem. And she prayed: “HaShem, God of Israel, Ancient of Days, Creator of the universe, please help your orphaned handmaid who lived without father or mother like a poor woman begging from house to house. Even here, in the palace of Achasverosh, I move from window to window beseeching Your mercy. And now, HaShem, grant success to your humble handmaid. Let her rescue the [orphaned] sheep of Your pasture from their murderous enemies. Nothing can prevent their deliverance if You choose to redeem them—the few can defeat the many, the weak can vanquish the strong. You, Who are the Father of orphans, please stand beside this orphan who trusts in Your lovingkindness. Let this man [Achashverosh] feel kindness towards me, for I tremble before his wrath. Tame him before me, that the haughty be humbled.” (Midrash Rabbah – Esther 8:7)
Mordecai and Esther employed a whole range of tactics to counter Haman’s murderous ploy. They unified the people, fasted for days, engaged the children, donned sackcloth, performed kabbalistic yichudim (theurgic meditations), wept, blew the shofar, risked their lives…and prayed. Together and alone they prayed. There is much for us to learn from Esther’s supplication as recorded in the midrash. She applied one of the deepest teachings articulated by the Baal Shem Tov as the secret to his legendary power of prayer.
Basing himself on HaShem’s instruction to the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) about how to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov derives a deep teaching about prayer in general. In fact, one intention we are advised to hold as we step into our daily prayer is to imagine ourselves in the Holy of Holies encountering the Divine Presence without Its usual veils (as did the High Priest on that exalted day of the year). (Mishna Brura 94:1) So it makes sense for us to use the Kohen Gadol as our role model and look for clues from the directives he received.
The Torah introduces the intricate details of the Yom Kippur ritual with the following words:
God said to Moses: Speak to your brother Aaron, that he not enter the [innermost] sanctuary at all times… so that he not die…[Rather] in this way (בזאת / b’zot) Aaron should enter [the inner] sanctuary: [with specified offerings, specified clothing, specified purifications, and only on the special day of Yom Kippur etc.]. (Lev. 16:3)
That is the pshat which punctuates the phrase, “Rather in this way Aaron should enter the inner sanctuary,” as if it ended with a colon followed by a long list of requirements. Yet the midrash interprets the verse differently. (MR Lev. 21:6) It reads that phrase as if it were punctuated with a period, a complete thought unto itself, as if זאת is itself the ingredient that must accompany the High Priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies.
Speak to your brother Aaron, that he not enter the inner sanctuary…except with zot (בזאת).
So the obvious question becomes, “what is this mysterious zot?” From the dictionary’s perspective it is a nondescript pronoun that means simply, this. Yet there is a Talmudic rule that the essence of a word is conveyed by the context in which it first appears in the Torah. (TB BK 55a) And this tip produces a jackpot of associations. The first place in the Torah where the word zot appears is in the creation of Chava from Adam’s side.
And in that single verse the word zot appears three times:
Adam said, “Now this is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. For this [reason] she shall be called Woman because this [meaning she] was carved out from man” (Gen. 2:23).
ויאמר האדם זאת הפעם עצם מעצמי ובשר מבשרי לזאת יקרא אשה כי מאיש לקחה זאת.
Based on this fact (and others), kabbalists interpret zot as a codeword for the feminine expression of Divinity, the Shekhina in all her varied forms.
The rabbis explore the implications of this teaching for the Kohen Gadol given that he must not enter the Holy of Holies without zot? There are a range of opinions about what, practically, this means. The Baal Shem Tov presents an interpretation that jibes with the method of Esther’s appeal and thus explains why her simple prayer was potent to evoke redemption.
Not all supplications are the same. Some are mighty and pierce to the core, while others reach only the lower heavens and get processed there. One who seeks to empower his prayer will find many tips, but the Komarna Rebbe focuses on the Baal Shem Tov’s advice to pray for the Shekhina. (SBST, MMC 149) This, says he, is what marks a master of prayer. And, as we shall see, it is also the secret of zot, the mysterious ingredient that enables a prayer to pierce the veil and access the Holy of Holies. The Baal Shem Tov derives two complementary practices from this word.
But first a definition of terms as they will be employed in this piece. The word, Shekhina, is used in two ways: 1) She is the sum-total of souls in the universe that ever were and ever will be—the composite of all those I-centers—of all those countless ways to experience the world. 2) Her inner essence is called Kenesset Yisrael, the Mystical Body of Israel (the composite of Jewish souls past, present and future). There is a certain revelation of Divine Oneness that uniquely manifests through this nation that HaShem designated to be the emissaries of His Torah.
It is the Shekhina that shattered in the primordial breaking of vessels, and it is She that we repair through our cosmic enterprise of tikun olam. Every soul comes in with a two-pronged task. It must 1) clean out impurities inherited from that formative shattering, and 2) actualize the potentials that are buried in its portion of soul stuff. Slowly but surely the task gets done. Generation after generation the work accrues and the Shekhina becomes more whole.
At some point, we will reach a critical mass, and reality will shift into its messianic golden age—the era of growth through joy—which initiates the next leg of our journey, our return and reintegration with our Source on high.
Each of us is a cell in the cosmic Shekhina. And every cell is directly linked to others that are part of its “extended family.” Eventually though, everyone is connected (with varying degrees of separation) to everyone else. And so we are challenged to cultivate a two-tiered identity: 1) Our personal self, the one that carries our name, birthday, and the detailed chronology of our life and, 2) A transpersonal self that identifies with the higher order unity, the Shekhina (or cosmic Adam) that includes us as one of its myriad cells.
The Baal Shem Tov explains that the Shekhina is not an entity apart from us. The Shekhina IS us, She is the sum of us. The Shekhina sees the world through our eyes, loves through our heart, cries through our tears and dances with our feet. And furthermore, says the Baal Shem Tov, when something goes out of whack in our lives, the source of that imbalance can (and must) be traced back to the Shekhina Herself. We are the symptom bearer of a more systemic ill. The Shekhina is suffering, and our pain is the visible indicator of Her dis ease.
And this, says the Baal Shem Tov, is one key to zot, the magic ingredient that propels a prayer all the way through to the holy of holies. (SBST Gen. 189, Ve’ara 3, par. 2, Achari 2) Some assume that praying for the Shekhina means forgetting about one’s own discomfort and praying for some more abstract notion of Hashem’s suffering. But really, says the Baal Shem Tov, the opposite is true.
When the Torah says that one “cannot enter the Holy of Holies…except with zot” it is directing us to start “here”—with the simple reality of who we are and how we feel and where we’ve been, and what we lack. Zot becomes the Jewish version of “be here now.”
If we want to take the Shekhina’s pulse (so to speak) and see what She needs in order to pray for Her, then the place to start is with zot—this present moment—our here and now. The more probing our assessment, the more effective our prayer.
Then, says the Baal Shem Tov, we need to realize (and take to heart) that our personal lack is really just the symptom of an equivalent lack in the Shekhina. And finally we formulate a prayer that expresses our empathy for the Shekhina and summons relief both for Her and for us (or the one for whom we are praying). (SBST, MMC 149)
Esther is a model for this method of prayer. There she was, in the palace, trusted wife of the king, the only Jew with any hope of averting the genocidal decree. Clearly she was groomed for this mission. And if so, she must be able to succeed which means that her petition must reach the Holy of Holies which means that she must embrace her zot with all its tragedies—an orphaned girl, a hidden Jew, estranged from her people, wedded to a man she did not love, and locked into that fate. Yet Esther understood that she was embodying a deep torment in the Shekhina Herself and she prayed from that place—from that zot.
Esther prayed for herself and she prayed for the Shekhina (or collective zot) since a prayer for the nation of Israel, is a prayer for Kenesset Yisrael, which makes it a prayer for the Shekhina as well. And the formulation of her prayer—the way she articulated her request and bolstered its merit—was by identifying the unique travails of her life (her personal zot), recognizing their collective expression in Kenesset Yisrael, and praying that the Shekhina be relieved of exactly that. Esther’s prayer (combined with all her other efforts) possessed the zot required to reach the Holy of Holies and elicit the hidden miracle that we celebrate as our Purim story.
Esther prayed: “HaShem God of Israel, Ancient of Days, Creator of the universe, please help your orphaned handmaid who lived without father or mother like a poor woman begging from house to house….Grant success to your humble handmaid. Let her rescue the sheep of Your pasture [the ones who cried ‘We are orphans. Our father has abandoned us…’ (Lam. 5:3)]. Let her save them from their murderous enemies…You, Who are the Father of orphans, please stand beside this orphan who trusts in Your lovingkindness. And let this man [Achashverosh] feel kindness towards me, for I tremble before his wrath. …” (Midrash Rabbah – Esther 8:7)
And here we are, 2,369 years later, facing another genocidal threat by the Persian Empire, but this time there does not seem to be an Esther in the palace. The job of deflecting this peril reverts to our collective self, the sum total of zots in the Jewish people. Everyone must contribute according to the tools (spiritual and material) available to them…and according to the priorities of their I-center. The politicians must deliberate, the commanders must strategize, the mossad must gather facts on the ground, the soldiers must prepare to risk their lives, the negotiators must parley, and the keepers-of-the-faith must pray.
HaShem, God of Israel, Ancient of Days, Creator of the universe…There are leaders making decisions right now that will have profound effects on the survival of your people, their safety and their well-being. Please, HaShem, You who direct the hearts of man, please let them (and all of us) choose the options that will bring about the unfolding of history along the most efficient and least painful route possible.
And let it be that every Jew, no matter where they stand, no matter what they face, let them see the Light (i.e. Your light). And let them integrate that Light so deeply into their being—into their heart bones cells and spaces, thought, speech and deed—that they (and we all together) become the Light (i.e. the “Light unto the nations” that is our truth and our destiny). And let us shine that Light out into the world with a strength and a radiance and a glory that all the nations of the world, including our enemies among them, will see the Light (i.e. HaShem’s Light as it shines through the Jewish people)—their hearts should open, their lives should turn, they should choose good and be redeemed.
May the power of our Purim prayer and celebrations turn the world right-side-up and draw a flow of revealed good into the heart, bones, cells and spaces of your creation and of every creature in it. May the Shekhina be inebriated with holy joy this Purim.
Esther’s prayer began as a petition for the Shekhina and she empowered that prayer by identifying her zot (her own personal way of embodying the collective travail) and she prayed from there. But most of the time we go in the opposite direction. We pray for relief from our own pains or lacks and the challenge is to identify how they connect to the Shekhina and are even sourced there. The Komarna Rebbe makes it clear that this teaching about zot is not a technique, meaning that it is not a formula that if we remember to mention the Shekhina by saying the right words, our prayer will be answered. No! In fact, if that’s what we are doing it will backfire, says he. Prayer is “service of the heart,” which means that it must be honest and sincere. If we insert words that imply a concern for the Shekhina, but in truth we haven’t given Her a second thought, the prayer will not even make it off the ground, let alone soar to the Holy of Holies. (SBST, MMC 149)
Zot is a consciousness. It is an awareness that must be cultivated—a knowing that is the fruit of deep (and disciplined) contemplation. It requires that we get real about who we are and where we are and what we really want. And it requires that we connect with the Shekhina—that we step inside Her shoes and empathize with Her pains.
The words of a composed prayer can guide us to an awareness that, if truly imbibed, will empower our petition. But we need to make them real. We need to take them into our heart. We need to make them our truth.
An Intention Before the Shemoneh Essrei and/or Personal Prayer: As I step into prayer I connect myself to the yearnings of the world, to all the places in creation that can hold more and long to do so. And from here I speak my prayer both as a personal appeal and as a shaliach tsibur (prayer leader) for all the longing within this field that resonates with my supplication. [This prayer could be said after stepping into the Shemoneh Essrei but before beginning the liturgy and /or it could be the introduction to a personal prayer that is not attached to liturgy.]
A Prayer for Refua Shelayma: I know that every circumstance of life, whether for good or for bad, is the most gentle way that could possibly be designed to bring about the tikun that is my next step in personal and spiritual development. And yet it might still be that other options could emerge if we would consciously participate in the effort. And so I am praying, HaShem for you to help me (and us all) internalize Your messages to the depths of our being (thought, speech and deed) so that we shed the need for physical discomfort and become able to participate fully, wholly and joyfully in life. And that would be a win-win, both for us AND the Shekhina, for the Shekhina is the soul and the world is her body (so to speak). The less conscious the world is, the more dis-ease prone She becomes. For that is what illness means for the Shekhina, when clusters of Her cells (meaning creatures and mostly humans) lose their way and start producing effects that are toxic to the system, and then the Shekhina suffers “O my aching head, O my aching arm.” (TB Chagiga 15b). Please Hashem open the heart, bones, cells and spaces of creation to your guiding light, and let it bring healing to the souls and bodies of the world including my very own. [This prayer could be inserted into the 8th blessing of the Shemoneh Essrei or it could be said as separate personal prayer. Once the ideas become integrated it could be shortened significantly.]
A Prayer for Shidduch: HaShem, You designed the world according to the law of gender. The very definition of Adam is male and female joined. There are joys to be had on my own for sure…but there are depths of soul that are only touched by the blessings and challenges of married life. Before every mitzva, HaShem, we pray for Your shidduch, “”לשם יחוד קב”ה ושכינתא… (“For the purpose of the uniting the Holy One with his [beloved] Shekhina, [we perform this mitzvah]…”). I know that all the unmatched and mismatched souls are but a token of Your cosmic loneliness. I pray that the Shekhina and HaKadosh Boruch Hu should finally meet from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet, and I pray that all the single people should find and marry their holy soulmates. א-להים מושיב יחידים ביתה. (“HaShem settles all single people in their home.”)(Psalms 68:7).[This prayer could be inserted into the 16th blessing of the Shemoneh Essrei or it could be said as separate personal prayer. Again, once the ideas become integrated it could be shortened.]
A Prayer for Child: HaShem, you have created a world that revolves around one central drive—the primal will to produce fruit—a drive (and longing) that you implanted in the human psyche from Your very first communiqué to Adam and Chava when you charged them to be fruitful and multiply. And although this can happen in many ways, and it is definitely true that from one perspective:
עיקר תולדותיהם (היינו פירותיהם) של צדיקים הם המעשים טובים שלהם.
The essential progeny [i.e. fruits] of tsadikim are their good deeds. (Rashi, Gen. 6:9)
Nevertheless, the ultimate expression (and satisfaction) of this drive is to bring a holy neshama into the world (a chaylek elokai) with all the joys and trials that that entails. For most people this blessing comes without effort and without apparent connection to merit and hishtadlut. Yet there are so many holy women and couples that love You and serve you and long to participate in this sacred chain of life…please HaShem, open the gate of blessing and bring children into our wombs and into our lives now…for your sake Hashem, for the Kiddush HaShem that comes from demonstrating the rewards of faith, prayer, and holy efforts…and for the sake of Your holy and beloved Shekhina who cannot give birth to Her messianic redeemer until all the children are born into the world, as the Talmud states:
אין בן דוד בא עד שיכלו נשמות בגוף.
[Mashiach] the son of David will not come until all the souls in the heavenly repository have incarnated. (TB Yev. 62a)
Answer us, Hashem, as You answered our holy Matriarchs:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיי דָּבָר לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וּלְשָֹרָה בֵן
Is anything too wondrous for HaShem. In the appointed time in this season I will return to you and Sarah shall have a son. (Gen. 18:14).
[This prayer could be inserted into the 16th blessing of the Shemoneh Essrei or it could be said as separate personal prayer. Again, once the ideas have been integrated it could be shortened.]