Let's talk a bit about God and prayer.

Over the years, I've brought little items to help us keep the meaning of this special time with us after we leave. Many years ago, I offered pairs of pebbles (like these tightly wrapped blessings I carry with me). Then, another year I gave you a coiled spring to impress on you the spiral (not cyclical) nature of Jewish history. Tonight I want you each to take one of these mustard seeds and put it in your pocket, or keep it in your hand for the evening.

I keep on the bulletin board by my desk a paragraph written (though not published) by R. Mordecai M. Kaplan about Praying and Thinking:

To say that I believe in praying sounds to me as absurd as to say I believe in thinking. The question whether prayer is effective is only a special form of the question whether thought is effective. And just as we make use of the best thoughts of others in order to channel our own thinking into the surest and most beneficial effectiveness, so should we make use of the most noble and sincere prayers of others to channel our own prayers into a life of the greatest nobility and sincerity. That is why I like to pray and why I frequently resort to the prayers of those who could speak their mind in the language of prayer. Unfortunately, we Jews have limited prayer to the deadening routine of reciting the few meager passages which go to make up our official prayer book.

In the Gates of Prayer (our official prayer book) one of my favorite paragraphs is not actually one of the "prayers" but an introduction (pg 152):

Prayer invites God to let the Divine presence suffuse our spirits, to let the Divine will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

We gather here to water our souls, mend our hearts and rebuild our wills.

But, we are often caught with pediatric images of prayer and God that get in our way.

Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a medieval Jewish philosopher wrote:

An impoverished person thinks that God is an old man with white hair, sitting on a wondrous throne of fire that glitters with countless sparks, even though the Bible states: "The Ancient-of-Days sits, the hair on his head like clean fleece, his throne--flames of fire." Imagining this and similar fantasies the child corporealizes God. He falls into one of the traps that destroy faith. His awe of God is limited by his imagination.

But, if you are enlightened, you know God's oneness; you know that the divine is devoid of bodily categories--these can never be applied to God. Then you wonder, astonished: Who am I? I am a mustard seed in the middle of the sphere of the moon, which itself is a mustard seed within the next sphere. So it is with that sphere and all it contains in relation to the next sphere--one inside the other--and all of them are a mustard seed within the further expanses. And all of these are a mustard seed within further expanses.

Your awe is invigorated. The love in your soul expands.

Cordovero continues:

The essence of divinity is found in every single thing-- nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each one.

Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that the The-One-Without-End emerges from a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have *dualized*. God forbid! Realize, rather, that The-One-Without-End exists in each and every manifestation. Do not say, "This is a stone and not God." God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.

We have long sought experiences that would make our awareness of the Divine in the stone more real in our lives. Two thousand years ago

The Rabbis taught [The Talmud (Chagiga 14b), Zohar (I, 26b) and Tikunei Zohar (Tikun 40)]:

Four Sages entered the "the PaRDeS, orchard (mystical paradise) through intense meditation on God's Name. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya and Rabbi Akiba.

Rabbi Akiba said to them before they started out: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of God is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed --he lost his sanity. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16). Elisha ben Abuya cut down the plantings --he became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and left in peace.

Those who want to learn more of their experiences can read "As a Driven Leaf" by Milton Steinberg.

From this we have learned at least two things.

1. Direct, unmediated contact with God can be very dangerous.

2. We've taken the word Pardes, which is not originally a Hebrew word... sounds like... (...PaRaDiSe...) and built a way of understanding Torah on four levels: Pshat: the simple literal meaning of the story; Remez: to what the story may hint (on an interpersonal lever, for instance); Drash: what we can draw out of the story; and Sod: the potential, mystical hidden meaning of the story.

Now I want us to take a look at a short passage of the Zohar, the crown jewel of Jewish mysticism:

There was a man who lived in the mountains. He knew nothing about those who lived in the city. He sowed wheat and ate the kernels raw. (Pshat)

One day he entered the city. They brought him good bread. He said, "What is this for?" They said, bread, good to eat!" He ate, and it tasted very good. He said, "What is it make of?" They said, "Wheat." (Remez)

Later they brought him cakes kneaded in oil. He tasted them and said, "What are these made of?" They said, "Wheat." (Drash)

Finally, they brought him royal pastry made with honey and oil. He said, "And what are these made of?" They said "Wheat." (Sod)

He said, I am the master of all of these, for I eat the essence of all of these: wheat!"

Because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world; they were lost to him. So it is with one who grasps the principle and does not know all those delectable delights deriving, diverging, from that principle.

May we, tiny divine mustard seeds as we may be, look forward in this coming year, to be watered, mended and rebuilt, as we open ourselves to the full enjoyment of the rich baklava of our Jewish tradition.

©Mark Hurvitz