The Prayer of Nearness - (Feb 2013)

 Here  is a simple re-posting of an essay which I wish to highlight. It was first published in February 2011 (for Shabbos Terumah). 

 The root krv in Hebrew refers to "nearness" or "intimacy" and it gives us the word korban. Although it has a different root, we may also hear an echo of it in the word keruv.   A korban (sacrifice) is the means by which we attempt to draw near to the divine and a keruv (cherub) is either an angelic being which lives near to the presence of G-d or a symbol of that “nearness”. When we are close to someone we say that they are our “nearest and dearest”- a phrase which usually denotes one’s family and friends. This terminology of intimacy is not out of place in a discussion of the intimacy experienced in contemplative prayer, for G-d is both our Parent and our Friend.  The Jewish Contemplative is a Mitkarev: someone who wishes to "draw near" to G-d.

For contemplatives it is an especially apt vocabulary. A religious contemplative is one of those who simply cannot find rest unless they are involved in an active and intimate relationship with the divine- in other words, a person who literally craves nearness with G-d. Of course, it does not always follow that a desire for such “nearness” makes the supplicant also one of G-d’s “dearest”.

There are many who crave to be near the divine who are just well wrapped-up in a religious cloak, or who are lost in the labyrinths of magic or superstition which are sometimes the fore-courts of religious experience and sometimes their heavily disguised prison-block. Some of us slide temporarily into such prisons and sometimes try on that cloak for size, but we are rescued (usually by common sense though sometimes by Revelation) before we are utterly lost. Aaron must have been like that. My guess is that he remembered the golden calf and his bitter infidelity at all the subsequent times when he stood before the ark of the covenant. Similarly all of us are capable of being “pious” in our behaviour and yet devoid of the “righteousness” which combines with and extends such religious piety into becoming the practical and selfless love of others.

Yet the fact remains, some of us are most definitely aware of a call to be “near” G-d which does not elevate us over others, does not lead us into power-games with the spiritual world, and which is not an escape from community but an expression of profound involvement in it. Such contemplatives have the single-mindedness which is expressed in the cry:

"One thing do I ask of the Lord, and only that shall I seek:
To dwell in the house of The Lord all the days of my life,
To behold G-d’s beauty,
And to meditate in His Sanctuary."
Psalm 27:4

All contemplative Jews aspire to this, but a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative is a Jew with a monastic single-mindedness to devote every moment of their existence to the practice of such nearness. Not as a form of self-perfecting asceticism, but as act of religious and community service. A “sacrifice”of prayer and devotion which envelops all creation. It is not an escape from society or responsibility. It is an embrace.

I have not seen this better expressed than in the following passage from the writings of Rav Avraham Kook which I came across last year :

“Whoever feels, after many trials, that the soul within him can find repose only when it is occupied with the mysteries of the Torah, should know that for this has he been destined. May no obstacle in the world, fleshly or even spiritual, confuse or turn him from the pursuit of the fountain of his life, his true fulfillment.
And it is well for him to know that not only his own self-fulfillment and salvation wait upon the satisfaction of this tendency within him... The saving of society and the perfecting of the world also depend upon it. For a soul fulfilled helps to fulfill the world. True thoughts, when they flow without hindrance into any one of the corners of life, bless all of life.”
Abraham Isaac Kook
(quoted on page 575 of the Study Anthology in Siddur Tefilot)

I would go further than Rav Kook and state that to discourage the minority of Jews who wish to live like this from doing so- might actually be preventing the light of tikkun olam from reaching all the nooks and crannies it is intended to reach. The responsibilities of the contemplative (and of the full-time yeshivah and kollel student) are, in my account book, as needed and as valuable as are the more pragmatic or more easily quantified aspects of Jewish philanthropy and tzedekah.

Putting this in a nutshell, I am saying that if a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative (or any contemplative Jew) wants to be one of G-d’s “dearest” practitioners of Justice and Good Deeds, the most direct path for them is to focus exclusively on becoming “near” to G-d.

Becoming “one of G-d’s intimate friends” (to use Avraham Maimonides’ term) in a highly spiritual or “consecrated” lifestyle is not a path which attracts all Jews...but some are specifically called to use it. Some for a short time. Some for much longer. (ask Isaac Luria and Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, both of whom spent many years in contemplative and solitary isolation.)

The paradox is that this apparently solitary, withdrawn, and highly spiritual path to G-d leads simultaneously to a deeper and more dynamic practical community life. A community life expressed through the sacrificial performance of contemplative prayer and liturgy.

The Mitkarev, the one who draws near, is alone but always in community.

I’ll try to explain that statement a little as this commentary unfolds, but first I’d like to look at the “prayer of nearness”. The type of contemplation during which G-d engages a Jewish Contemplative in mental prayer.

Sometimes we pray with words. Sometimes we pray with our silence.
That silence may be the silence of deep awe as we realise before Whom we stand,
That silence may be that of one who is listening with rapt attentiveness.
Perhaps waiting for inspiration or enlightenment,
But when a Jewish Contemplative prays in such silence:
They are always praying in this way to express service and availability.
The ultimate aim is to be of use to G-d.
This puts service, avodat ha-kodesh, above any self-based motive or concern.

It is possible to be in the presence of the Lord of All Worlds and yet to call Him “Tateh” (Father). We have lost none of our awe and respect when we do this. We are profoundly aware of the stunning intimacy we are granted in our prayerful relationship with G-d. He is both El Elyon -beyond our understanding- and yet also Yedid Nefesh (Our soul’s lover and friend) and thus within our human experience. Our G-d is Avinu Malkeinu (our Father and our King). The Sovereign of the Universe is our Parent and Friend.

Sometimes our prayer is like sitting in companionable silence with the One who is closer to us than our own thoughts are to our words. Closer than we can express. But we know in our hearts that G-d is that close. We know the rabbinical dictum which reminds us that “G-d is the Place (HaMakom) of the world but not confined or wholly contained by the World”. But we know from our intuitive contemplative experience that G-d’s Place is (also) the cave of the heart- in our deepest soul.

Sometimes our silence is like a wordless gaze of love, compassion, hope, sorrow, deep joy or deep despair. Sometimes it is not we who are doing the looking: there are times when we are momentarily aware of G-d’s gaze and attention on us. That itself becomes a moment of contact which might happen only once in our lives, but which can feed a whole lifetime of faith and hope. The sort of “nearness” I am referring to here is thus not the nearness of one who cleaves to G-d in the midst of all their activities...the kind of devekus which all Jewish mystics aspire to....but it is the sort of momentary or very rare kind of connection which all religious people cherish as special treats. They are not necessarily emotional (nor intellectual), but they are always special.

If they are genuine moments of a special contact with G-d, their effects will last as creative and action-generating events to be called up into the memory long after they were first experienced. If they are simply the works of an overactive imagination or hormonal activity, they will splutter out like a lamp-wick drowning in too much oil. If they are the result of a humble approach to a G-d who wants to be encountered, then yes, imagination and our body chemistry is most certainly involved, but something will have entered the heart/consciousness of the one praying to make the encounter a numinous/spiritual one and not just a psychic/cerebral one. Perhaps the experience of the mystic is some sort of internal conversation between those two areas of human thought and experience? Perhaps it is from out of that internal conversation between the two “keruvim of our human spirituality” that the divine Voice is generated?

In Parshas Terumah we are told

"And there I will meet with you
and I will speak to you, from above the ark cover,
from between the two keruvim."
(Exodus 25:22)

The words are addressed to Moses and Aaron and so they applied in the first instance to prophets and priests. But to quote Rabbi J.H.Hertz (commenting on the priestly investiture recounted in Parshas Tetzaveh):

“The ear was touched with the blood that it might be consecrated to hear the word of G-d; the hand, to perform the duties concerned with the priesthood; and the foot, to walk in the path of righteousness. In a “kingdom of priests”, the consecration of ear, hand, and foot should be extended to every member of that kingdom.”
Hertz Chumash p 346

We read also:
“And there I will meet with the Children of Israel”
Exodus 29:43

In other words, the Divine promise to meet us in the “prayer of nearness” is made to the entire People of Israel, and not just with its leaders, clergy, or officials. Consequently, all of us are invited to “draw near”, stand in that place before the ark, and listen the Voice which speaks from between the keruvim. Thus, in this prime way, all Jews are called to be “contemplatives” and contemplatives in community. The High Priest alone entered the Holy of Holies, but the entire people were “present there” in spirit. They stood outside the veil but were as focussed on the concealed Presence in the Most Holy Place as any High Priest.

Thus, all Jews are invited to practice the “prayer of nearness”, whether they are living lives of dedicated contemplation or not. There is a balance here. Just as the full time Torah Scholar or Jewish Contemplative engages in a form of tikkun olam which is for the benefit and the service of the “social group”- So the Jew whose life is predominantly one of social activity and secular business is called to remember that attention to “the spiritual” is not to be overlooked. Having said this, it is very rare and perhaps impossible to find that the “spiritual” and the “secular” are perfectly balanced in any particular individual... most of us choose a point along the spectrum between the two which is more medial than extreme. But in a healthy community there will always be room for those whose calling is on the fringes, and as we Jews know, “fringes” (tzitzit) are often more significant than they might seem at first glance.

 The nearness of G-d is something we can experience in private prayer. In that sense it is a bit like standing before the ark in our interior Sanctuary with nobody else present to disturb the intimacy of the moment. The nearness of G-d is also experienced in Community. In that sense, maybe it’s a bit like the silent dialogue of the keruvim we read of in the Talmud:

There is a saying -originating in Bava Batra 99a and Yoma 54a -that the two keruvim seemed to embrace and touch wings when the Israelite community was in harmony with G-d’s will and that they seemed to disconnect and turn their faces away from each other in times of discord.

Though it is possible that the design or placement of the carvings may have made the figures appear differently when viewed from differing perspectives..the details are not as important as is the symbolic thought behind this Talmudic notion.

Some commentators have seen the facing/facing away as a reference to inter-personal behaviour within the community itself:- that the keruvim seemed to face each other when the community was solicitous for the needs of its weaker members and that they turned away when Jews were being selfish.

I find the idea of the two keruvim facing each other but looking “down” at the ark very reminiscent of the monastic practice of performing the liturgy in antiphonal choirs. Christian monks face each other during the liturgy but never look directly at each other.

The monastic liturgical seating arrangement is one whereby the community members are simultaneously facing each other in two lines but are individually engrossed in prayerful contact with G-d. It is a seating arrangement that some think originated in Levitical practice and which is also reflected in older Spanish synagogues where the congregation line three of the four walls of the building.

Each Jewish Contemplative is engaged in the activity of “Cleaving to” G-d in devekut, but somehow “bears” the community in his/her heart while doing so. We are closest to each other when we are close or “near” to G-d.

When we cleave to G-d and (in doing so) hold our brothers and sisters in our own communities (and in the community of all Creation) in the Light- we are, in a way, being keruvim ourselves: Each of us “facing” in the sense that we act as a community, but each of us “focused on the ark” so that the Divine Presence may rest and maybe even speak or act in the “space” our prayer creates.

The embrace of the keruvim is the union of the individual and the community, of the practical and the spiritual, of the rational and the intuitive, of joy and sorrow. They are like two flames which want to burn as one. That union is a flame which only you can light when you stand before the ark and listen. 

N R Davies
Feb 1 2011