Parshas Balak-Likkutei Torah-The purpose of Prayer

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Parshas Balak


“Lo Hibit Avon Beyaakov …

[Likkutei Torah p. 140]

This week’s Mamar examines the statement in Bilaam’s prophecy that, “Hashem does not look to see sin amongst the [children of] Yaakov.” Bilaam attempted to curse the Jewish people, but he ended up blessing them. The blessings of Bilaam, despite coming from a wicked person, contain deep meaning and direction for the Jewish people. What does it mean that Hashem did not see sin amongst the Jewish people? Were they truly completely righteous and without sin? Another query: Why did Bilaam use the names “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” interchangeably? What meaning do these two names have? This leads to a full treatise on the subject of prayer, its meaning, purpose, and importance. This Mamar is a classic amongst the Alter Rebbe’s Mamarim for anyone who desires to understand the service of prayer. It has been printed in various formats in Hebrew, with explanations and annotations. As the full Mamar is quite long, the summary below will focus mainly on the subject of prayer discussed in the Mamar. For the complete Mamar, please refer to the original in Likkutei Torah or its printing in Chassidus Mevueres.


Explorations of the Mamar:

1.      Why are we called servants that serve the Master, if Hashem does not lack anything and our service is merely for our benefit? Does G-d really need us here for Him, or is it all a setup simply for our own wellbeing?

2.      What is the Dirah Betachtonim, and how do we create it? What part in the Dirah Betachtonim is played by prayer, Mitzvos, and Torah learning?

3.      The importance of prayer and how the intent of all one’s Torah and Mitzvos is dependent on it. Why is prayer not a Biblical command?

4.      Why is prayer considered the spinal cord? Why is the spinal cord not listed as one of the 248 limbs of the body?


The Question of the Mamar:

The Jewish people are at times referred to as “Yaakov” and at times as “Yisrael.” The difference between the terms “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” is that they refer to two different aspects of service of G-d that are found within every Jew. The term “Yaakov” connotes the service of a servant [Avodas Eved], while the term “Yisrael” connotes the service of a son. These two terms need understanding. In what ways are we a son and a servant to Hashem? Furthermore, simply speaking, the concept of a servant is only applicable to a master that has needs that are lacking and must be fulfilled for him by his servants. What needs does Hashem have? Hashem is perfect and lacks nothing! So how can we be called “servants” if the entire idea of Avodas Hashem is simply for our benefit, as seemingly, due to His perfection, Hashem has no need or gain from it at all? On the contrary, He created everything that we use to serve Him, including the entire concept of Torah and Mitzvos and service of G-d. Hence, how can He be considered lacking, or in need, of this service? To understand this, we must first introduce the meaning and reason behind G-d’s creation of the worlds and the purpose it serves.


The concept of Dirah Betachtonim:

There is a well-known statement from the Midrash Tanchuma that Hashem created the world in order “to have a dwelling place below”. Hashem desired to create a system that would be naturally devoid of G-dliness and His revelation. This would be a world that contains creatures that neither feel nor see G-d’s existence and possess free will to either perform evil and ignore, or even blaspheme against G-d in every way possible, or overcome their natural non-G-dly desires (which are caused due to the concealment) and break themselves to serve G-d.  This is called inviting G-d into the lower realms, the realms that are devoid of G-dliness. Now, in truth, G-d’s glory fills all the worlds, including our world, and everything is like naught before Him. Hence certainly from His perspective, He is found everywhere and everything is considered non-existent to Him even in our world. Nevertheless, this is only from His perspective; from the perspective of the creations below, however, G-d is not visible in this world at all and we feel that we are the masters of fate and owners of destiny. It is this that G-d desired: for us to reveal the truth that even this world is filled with His glory, and even this world is nullified to the G-dliness within it. By doing so, we invite G-d into the lower realms, the realms of our minds and hearts that He is currently concealed from.

True service -We fulfill G-d’s desire:

Based on the above, it is understood that we are actual servants of Hashem who fulfill a lacking that He has; a deep and true desire to be invited by us and revealed by us, in an area where He is concealed and not known. We are thus performing a great service for Hashem, to fulfill that which He now feels He lacks. Yet, although we certainly cannot say that G-d lacks anything, as G-d is perfect, how can we claim that G-d lacks a Dirah Betachtonim that we fulfill? Nevertheless, it is specifically due to His perfection that He has the ability to choose to lack something, and He chose, for reasons not comprehended by us[1], to lack a Dirah Betachtonim. Thus, no matter how we explain it, at present G-d is choosing to lack and desire a matter that is not yet fulfilled and which only we are able to perform.


How we achieve the Dirah Betachtonim:

The Dirah Betachtonim is actualized by the service of Iskafya and Is’hapcha. These are two different forms of service and relate to the positive and negative commandments found in the Torah. The 365 negative commandments are the Iskafya, while the 248 positive commandments are the Is’hapcha. The Iskafya, negative commandments, cleans the world from all the evil and spiritual forces that conceal and prevent G-dliness from being revealed. The Is’hapcha, positive commandments, is the drawing down of G-dliness to the world. This is similar to a king that hired a group of workers to clean an old ruin and turn it into a palace for him. At first, the workers must remove all the dirt and filth from the ruin [Iskafya – negative commandments] and afterwards they will bring in beautiful furniture [Is’hapcha – positive commandments]. 


Understanding the next phase in the Mamar:

The remainder of the Mamar focuses on Avodas HaTefillah. At first glance, the connection between the previous part and Avodas HaTefillah is not apparent. However, towards the end of the Mamar this matter is explained. The connection is as follows: The fulfillment of Dirah Betachtonim is dependent on our Avoda, as explained above. The Alter Rebbe explains in the next section of the Mamar that simply performing Mitzvos alone does not constitute the necessary Avoda required to make a Dirah for G-d. Rather, the Mitzvos must be imbued with feeling the love and fear of G-d, and it is the prayers that create this Kavana for the Mitzvos and make the Mitzvos able to draw down G-dliness and create a Dirah Betachtonim for Hashem.



Why is prayer only Rabbinical?

The Sages state that Tefillah is referred to as Avodas Haleiv, and it is only Rabbinical. This matter seems puzzling [as in light of what was explained above, it is specifically Avoda which creates a Dirah for Hashem] for the Mishneh states that the Sages were more stringent regarding the Kavana in Shemoneh Esrei than the Kavana in Shema, even though the Shema is Biblical according to all. If so, how can prayer not be considered one of the Biblical commands?

Prayer is the spinal cord of the Mitzvos:

The Sages[2] state that the 18 blessings of Shemoneh Esrei correspond to the 18 disks of the spine through which the spinal cord enters. What does this mean? The spinal cord is the source of movement and feeling for the entire body from head to toe, and through it vitality is drawn from the brain into each and every limb. Injury to the spinal cord causes paralysis and the person is considered as if dead. The disks of the spine protect the spinal cord and serve as the vessel that hold and direct it down the spine. With that said, one can clearly understand the importance that the spine plays in the body and how it is verifiably one of the central limbs on which the body’s function is dependent. Yet, we find that when the Sages[3] listed the 248 limbs of the body, they did not include the spinal cord and they completely ignored its existence. This is most puzzling in light of the importance that it plays to the body. This is similar to the Mitzvah of prayer, which is considered to be the spinal cord of the Mitzvos, and is also not counted as part of the 248 Positive Mitzvos. The reason that prayer is compared to the spinal cord is because it serves a similar function in respect to the Mitzvos. To understand this matter, we must first introduce the idea of Kavana in Mitzvos.

Prayer is the Kavana behind the Mitzvos: The Sages state that Mitzvos require Kavana/intent. This intent refers to prayer, which is the inner dimension and intent of the Mitzvos. Prayer therefore is the foundation and edifice that supports and establishes all 248 Mitzvos and is similar to the spinal cord that enlivens all 248 limbs of the body. To properly understand this, we must first examine the purpose of prayer:

The purpose of prayer and its uniqueness – To draw G-dliness down below:

The main purpose of prayer is to arouse a fervent desire and passion to have the G-dliness that is above the worlds revealed below in this world. This is the meaning of the word Baruch. Baruch means Hamshacha, which means “drawing down.” We thus request from Hashem in every blessing, “Please draw your revelation down into this world. We desire to see You and be with You.” In each blessing, we request a drawing down of G-dly revelation and Or Ein Sof into the matter that the blessing refers to. For example, in the blessing of Rofei Cholim, we request from Hashem to draw the revelation into this physical world in a way that is expressed by manipulating nature and healing the sick. In the blessings of Birchas Hashanim, we request that the G-dliness become revealed and cause rain to come down and vegetation to grow. This ability is only found in prayer, in contrast to Torah and Mitzvos, as only prayer has the ability to change the nature of the world through revelation, whereas a Mitzvah does not change physical nature. For example, when one dons Tefillin, no physical change is seen to occur to the leather of the Tefillin. Thus, in conclusion, we see that each one of the 18 blessings in Shemoneh Esrei serves as a conduit to hold the revelation of the Or Ein Sof in this world. This is necessary, as the blessing of G-d and revelation of His Divine light cannot reside in an empty area void of vessels. We thus mention all the requests in Shemoneh Esrei in order to make the vessels for the Divine light to reside. Nonetheless, it is understood that the main purpose is the Divine light (which is drawn down into this world) and not the vessel alone. This is similar to the 18 spinal disks that house the spinal cord; the main purpose is the cord and the disks merely serve as protection for the cord. In the wording of Kabbalah, this Hamshacha that occurs in Davening is referred to as Hamshachas Hamochin [drawing of intellect]. Just as the spinal cord connects the brain to every part of the body, so does our Davening connect physicality to the level of Daas, which thereby contains a revelation of G-dliness.

What does prayer have to do with the Kavana of the Mitzvos?

Based on the above understanding of the purpose of prayer, we can now understand the role that prayer plays for the Mitzvos. The purpose of the Mitzvos is to draw down G-dliness below and make a dwelling place for Him. The Mitzvos themselves refine and elevate the physical objects used for the Mitzvah and turn them into a proper receptacle for the G-dliness to shine in and be revealed. Yet the Mitzvah alone does not accomplish the actual drawing and revelation of the G-dliness; for that we need prayer. Prayer draws the G-dliness into those vessels that have been refined by the Mitzvos. Now, although without the Mitzvos there would be no vessels for the prayer-drawn G-dliness to reside in, nevertheless it is understood that the main purpose is the G-dliness and not the vessel. Thus prayer creates the “cache” of G-dliness that we use to draw into the Mitzvos. In particular, prayer draws down a very general revelation of G-dliness and it is the blessing before each Mitzvah that then draws down a specific revelation from within the general revelation previously brought down by prayer.


Summary of the three stages involved in making a dwelling place below for G-d:

From the above, it is understood that to properly draw down G-dliness into this world, three matters are required:

1.      A proper prayer to draw down and reveal G-dliness below that will eventually be drawn into the Mitzvos.

2.      A blessing [Kavana] before each particular Mitzvah in order to draw the specific revelation of G-dliness from within the general revelation that applies to that Mitzvah.

3.      The Mitzvah itself to refine and prepare the physical object to be a receptacle for the G-dliness.


The different types of vessels created for G-dliness to reside in:

We first explained that the 18 blessings are vessels to hold G-dliness, and then we said that the Mitzvos are vessels to hold G-dliness. In truth, there is a third vessel, which is Torah learning. Torah learning is counted as one of the 248 Positive Commandments, yet it is unlike the others. Torah learning serves as an inner vessel, while the other Mitzvos serve as external vessels. Torah learning draws G-dliness into the person and the realm of speech, while the Mitzvos draw the G-dliness into the objects of the world. This is similar to the vital organs of the body versus the external organs. Thus, in total, there are three types of vessels created for the G-dliness that is elicited via prayer:

  1. The 18 blessings of Shemoneh Esrei that hold the G-dliness drawn down during prayer so that it remains in this world.
  2. Torah learning, which draws the G-dliness internally into man.
  3. Mitzvos, which draw the G-dliness into the objects of the world.

The reason why prayer is not counted as one of the 248 positive commands:

The above now provides an insight into why prayer is not just another Positive Commandment and therefore was not counted as part of the 248 Mitzvos. The 248 commandments are a list of vessels that G-d commanded us to refine and prepare for Him to be drawn down into. However, prayer is what achieves the actual drawing down. It is thus on a much higher level than the Mitzvos, which are mere vessels, and it is the main intent and purpose of each one of the 248 commandments. As such, it cannot be counted as just another one of the 248. This is similar to the spinal cord that is not just another limb within the body, but a central limb that serves to connect and give life to all the others. This is why it too is not counted on the same level as the other limbs. 

Why aren’t the 18 blessings counted as 18 separate Mitzvos from amongst the 248, if the 18 spinal disks are listed in the Mishneh as 18 different limbs from within the 248? The answer is because the blessings of the prayer are completely nullified to the purpose of the prayer, which is to draw G-dliness, and just like the drawing of G-dliness is not counted as a separate Mitzvah, so too the 18 blessings are not counted separately.


“Whoever claims that prayer is Rabbinical has not seen light in all his days”[4]

In a letter[5] written to Alexander of Shklov, in response to complaints by the Misnagdim in Shklov against the length of prayer of the Chassidim, the Alter Rebbe made the following statement: “Those who say [one should not overemphasize] prayer due to it being merely a Rabbinical injunction have not seen light in all their days.” At first glance, this statement seems rather puzzling, as there are Rishonim who rule that prayer is Rabbinical, and the Alter Rebbe himself rules (Shulchan Aruch 106/2) that it is Rabbinical, so what is his complaint against the Misnagdim? Based on the Mamar above, this is clearly understood, for the fact that prayer is Rabbinical is not because it is of less importance than the other Mitzvos, but on the contrary, it is the soul behind all the Mitzvos and hence was not listed as one of the commandments (which are only the body and vessels for the G-dliness.) When we say that prayer is Rabbinical, this only refers to the time and Nussach of prayer. However, the idea of prayer is the root and foundation of all the Biblical commandments. Thus, one who insists that even the essence of prayer is Rabbinical has never seen light in all his days. This means he has yet to recognize the G-dliness drawn through prayer into his Mitzvos.


Practical applications:

Practically, how and why does prayer contain the great power to draw G-dliness into all the objects of the Mitzvos? This demands some clarification. How does just merely saying words draw down G-dliness, while actually donning Tefillin only prepares the vessel?

The purpose of the Dirah Betachtonim is not just to reveal G-dliness below, but to allow us, the Jewish people, and each individual Jew, to have a relationship with G-d similar to the relationship between a husband and wife, which involves love, passion, and submission towards Him [i.e. see Shir Hashirim]. Thus, while the Mitzvos cause Hashem to be revealed below, they do not create the passion and desire to be with Him. This is similar to a bride who prepares for her wedding by busying herself with necessary matters such as the house, the furniture, the wedding, etc., but forgetting that the entire purpose of the marriage is that her heart should be one with her groom. The desire to unite with G-d is accomplished specifically in prayer, as prayer discusses matters that ignite this love. Thus the prayer serves as the main purpose of the Mitzvos, and that is why it possesses the great power of drawing G-dliness below into the Mitzvos. 


The above sounds very nice and interesting but not practical. We all know our manner of praying and don’t really see anything too special or holy about it. In fact, we struggle to barely keep a clear and clean train of thought to concentrate on the words. How then is our prayer the source of revelation of G-dliness throughout all the Mitzvos, if even during prayer we don’t feel too Holy?

The idea of prayer is not just to say the words with their intent, but to arouse a feeling of passion and longing for G-dliness. Most of the problems we face in having foreign thoughts during prayer are due to our feelings not being aroused. Furthermore, due to its habitual daily performance, it also lacks intellectual stimulation. Thus, without stimulation of the mind or heart, our minds begin to drift. The way to battle this is to stimulate the heart and mind during prayer. The mind can be stimulated by learning and contemplating a matter of Chassidus prior to and during prayer. The heart can be stimulated through singing a soulful Niggun during prayer and thinking of matters about G-d that touch one’s deep seed of emotion. This will turn the prayer into an exciting and joyful event and accomplish the primary purpose of the Mitzvos, which is to draw G-dliness below and solidify our relationship with Hashem.




[1] Admur ibid; and so is written in various places in Chassidus. However, see the following Mamarim that mention reasons behind this desire:

[2] Brachos 28b

[3] Mishneh, end of Ohalos, chapter 3

[4] See Toras Menachem 27 p. 47

[5] Iggros Kodesh Admur Hazaken 15

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