Three Levels of Prayer — Rosh HaShanna, 5772 / 2011

by Sarah Yehudit Schneider

rosh.hashana.2011Eliyahu Dessler teaches that there are three levels of prayer, which can be reformulated as three ways to approach Rosh Hashanna.1

The first level is to cry out to HaShem like a child and pray for relief and redemption. The power of that prayer is its pure, simple faith in HaShem as the one-and-only source of bounty. There is one address for yearning and there is no prayer that HaShem cannot fulfill. To know this and to pray from the simple faith born from that knowing is the very foundation of prayer.

The next level of prayer is to feel a discomfort—an aversion, even—to requesting something for nothing…to expecting a free gift. The person prefers to earn the blessing he is seeking, to give something back to HaShem and turn it into an exchange instead of a unilateral handout. And so a person commits to upgrading her religious life by, for example, adding another hour of study, lengthening or deepening prayer, making time each day to talk to G‑d, giving more charity or whatever is the next step in her personal or spiritual development. In this stage the person’s relationship with HaShem enters another level of maturity expressed by a desire for mutuality. An infant takes without shame or reciprocity and that behavior is age-appropriate for the toddler. But part of maturing is to imitate HaShem by acquiring a habit (and even a preference) for giving. The Torah’s ideal is that we should loathe free gifts and make a practice of contributing more than we take.

“Let us not be needful….of the gifts of human hands nor of their loans…” (from the Blessing Recited After a Meal”)

The story is told of the great tsadik, R. Arye Levine: Before he entered the hospital he bought a bar of kosher soap to be used for cleansing his body after his passing, in preparation for burial as specified by Jewish law.  He packed the soap in his bag and brought it with him to the hospital. But why (someone asked him) did he need to prepare these things himself, beforehand? His answer was, “Even after my death I want to have no need of anything borrowed, that is not my own.”

And so, in this second level of prayer, since we are asking HaShem to do something for us by fulfilling our petition; therefore, in exchange, we commit to doing something for HaShem (so to speak)—to fulfill a request that He has made of us. That is the literal definition of a mitzvah—it is a declaration of HaShem’s will, a heavenly plea for us to do (or refrain from doing) a particular act. When we expand or deepen our mitzvah practice we are (so to speak) doing something for HaShem.

The third level of prayer is the province of tsadikim, who dedicate their lives, 24/7, to the service of G‑d and the spreading of His word (and His will). The tsadik is a full-time PR agent for HaShem.  He or she embodies something of the wisdom, generosity, compassion, humility or trustworthiness of G‑d, and deflects all praises for that trait back to the Source-of-All-Greatness, i.e. HaShem Himself. The tsadik has one desire: to deepen peoples’ faith in G‑d and trust in His ever-presence. The tsadik seldom prays for himself so when speaking about the tsadik’s prayer we refer primarily to his prayers for others.2

The tsadik’s prayer does not appeal to HaShem’s compassion or charity.  The tsadik (so to speak) demands HaShem to answer his petition based on their “contract.”  The agreement is that the tsadik will give his life over to Divine service, and HaShem will provide him with the resources required to spread the light.  Whatever the tsadik does, it is for God’s sake.  He takes no physical benefit or ego gratification from his success. HaShem, from His side, commits to assisting the tsadik’s holy work, as long as the tsadik’s intentions remain pure and self-sacrificing.

So, for example, a tsadik might pray: HaShem, I have given my life over to Divine service, and you agreed to provide me with the resources required to do Your work.  My mission is to teach the world that You are a good, loving, perfectly just and trustworthy G‑d. And yet, here, You are working against me.  How can I convince the world of Your justice and loving-kindness when this holy couple remains barren, or this innocent child dies…I insist, based on our contract, that You help me out here and bring a child to this couple or healing to this toddler… I am asking for Your sake (not for mine or even for theirs), but for the sanctification of Your name that will ensue.

Each of these three types of prayer has a place in our Rosh HaShana preparations. Yet the first, or lowest, becomes, also, the highest, which makes four levels altogether.

The first level of prayer is both the starting point and the capping point of our Rosh HaShana service. Here, at the beginning, it is the awe and trembling we feel before the weightiness of these days. Rosh HaShana is deadly serious and our fate rests in HaShem’s hands. Our hopes and prayers for health and bounty, fruitfulness and peace, love and success have one address and that is HaShem. If He does not prosper our path, our own efforts, no matter how mighty, will not succeed.

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening…you determine the resources of each creature and inscribe their verdict…who will live and who will die…” (RH Prayers)

The second level of prayer is expressed through our pre Rosh Hashana preparations. It is customary to undertake an additional stringency during Elul and to make resolutions for the coming year. The Elul stringency is not usually maintained beyond the Days of Awe. Rather it is a way of communicating the gravity of this time to our animal self, which only responds to the language of action (and deprivation).  Our resolutions, however, are commitments for the long haul. Elul is the time to reflect: What is the next step in my personal and spiritual growth? What is the most limiting factor in my life? That answer gets turned into a life goal. I commit to upgrading my religious practice or rectifying my personality in exactly that way this coming year.

The third (or tsadik) level of communion plays out through the prayer-vision that is one of the main preparations for Rosh HaShana. Elul is the time to formulate our goals and ambitions for the New Year. From this perspective we are HaShem’s employees. His Human Resources Department has assessed our skills and hired us for a particular job that is exactly suited to our talents, and that no one else could accomplish but us. Rosh Hashana is the time when great CEO (Chief Executive Officer) in the sky gives each one of us a budget of “lights,” based on our past performance, and our proposals (our prayer-visions) for the coming year. We should come to Rosh Hashana with a prospectus in hand.  As if to say, “HaShem it’s worth investing in my life, because this is what I’m going to do for you this year.  The ROI (Return On Investment) is unquestionably worth your while.  This is the contribution I intend to make to your global project of tikun olam.  I’m going to improve my property (my dalet amot) in the following ways (XYZ)…I’m going to contribute to the Jewish people and the planet in the following ways (XYZ).  A small investment of blessings on your part will pay off in a bounty of tikun on my part.  You will not regret your venture.”

As an employee, the work we are seeking to accomplish, that is presented in our prospectus, is really for the “Company;” it is what we were “hired” (and designed) to do. HaShem runs his world in a way that might be characterized as Management by Objective3 where we (the workers) are urged to formulate our short term and long term goals. This level of our prayer really is for HaShem’s sake, it really is for His global project of tikun olam. Part of our job description is to articulate the upcoming year’s objectives for the department under our supervision and to present them with G‑d serving intention.

“Do it for you sake, HaShem, if not for ours.” These are the resources I will need to do the job I was hired to do.

And finally, when the shofar wails, we return to the simple cry that exemplifies the first level of prayer.  Yet now, when we revisit that place of simple faith it is after all of our painstaking preparations—our soul-searching, goal-setting and mitzvah exertion. And that makes all the difference in the world.

We have admitted, voiced, and clarified our hopes, dreams, fears and visions for our lives and have committed ourselves to do the work required to earn those blessings. But now, in this culminating moment of Rosh HaShana, when the shofar cries, we put that agenda aside and find the place of our own inner shofar that seeks but one thing: “HaShem, I only want You.  I only want truth.  I only want to do what I am designed to do.”

I want to bless us, as individuals and as a community, that we open our hearts, minds, souls, and spaces to the shofar’s cry. That we let its message reverberate through our being, and awaken our own pure and genuine cry for good and God and truth and integrity, in a way that is potent to sustain its resolve. The world, and every individual in it, should be blessed with a good, sweet, healthy, joyful, peaceful, love-filled, light-filled, truth-filled, life-celebrating, Torah-sanctifying new year.

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[1] R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol. 2, p. 183-187.

2 In fact, as we learn from Moshe (Deut. 3:3), the tsadik does NOT use this method of prayer when praying for himself, but rather beg for grace like the rest of us.

3  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Management_by_objectives)

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