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I Forgot the I

November 16, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

Jacob, alone and far from home, lay down with only stones for a pillow. Isolated and vulnerable, he dreamt of a ladder set on earth but reaching heaven, with angels ascending and descending. What did this vision mean? Tradition provides many answers, but the simplest has to do with the encounter between the human soul and G-d, the encounter we now call prayer.

That very night, Jacob established the evening service. He himself described this moving experience thus: “Surely the L-rd is in this place, and I did not know it...How awesome! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven.” Only in hindsight do we understand the significance. A synagogue is a “House of G-d”; prayer is “The gate of heaven”; and the result - if we have truly opened our heart - is to know that, “G-d is in this place.”

There is one nuance in the text, while lost in translation, was noted by the Chassidic masters. Unlike English, Hebrew verbs always indicate their subject. Thus the word yadati means I knew,” and lo yadati, I did not know.” In our scenario, when Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Surely the L-rd is in this place - ואנכי לא ידעתי - ve’anochi lo yadati.” Anochi means I. In this sentence, however, it is superfluous. A literal translation of our verse would now read, “And I, I did not know.” Why the double I?

Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (Panim Yafos), offers a classic Chassidic insight that delves deep into human psychology. How does one come to know that, “G-d is in this place”? Only when, ואנכי לא ידעתי - Ve’anochi lo yadati - when one forgets (does not know) the I.

To know G-d one must lose the I. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves, do we become open to the Creator. This answers the age-old questions: Does prayer make a difference? Does it change G-d’s mind? Besides which, does not prayer contradict the fundamental principle of Judaism: we are here to do G-d’s will, not ask Him to do ours?

Prayer has two dimensions and a three-part structure. First, there are simply too many stories of prayers being answered for us to deny its power. How it works its way through the universe is anyone’s guess. The second aspect to prayer, that it changes us, is more readily understood. Literally, the verb lehispallel-to pray means, “to judge oneself.”  To become aware that we are not the center of the universe, one must escape from the prison of the self. Prayer as an act of self-judgment is that moment of transformation. This is why a person can emerge from an intense bout of prayer energized, a different human being.

But for this to occur, our prayers must parallel the three-parts of Jacob’s ladder: (a) ascent, (b) standing in the Presence, (c) descent. Indeed, all Jewish liturgy follows this form. Here are some examples.

1. The morning service begins with (a) pesukei de-zimra, a series of Psalms, which constitute our preparation. It then moves along to (b) the Shema and the Amidah, the essential prayers, and ends with (c) a series of concluding prayers. The basis of this threefold structure is a statement in the Talmud (Berachos 32b) that, “The early pious men used to wait for an hour before praying, then they would pray for an hour, and then they would wait for a further hour.”

2. The Amidah itself follows the same pattern: (a) sh’vach, praise, the first three paragraphs; (b) bakashah, requests, the middle paragraphs, and (c) hodayah, thanks the last three paragraphs.  Shevach is a preparation. Bakashah, the central section, has us standing like supplicants in the Presence itself. Hodayah is our leave-taking, where we thank G-d for His goodness. The spiritual entry and leave-taking are dramatized at the beginning by taking three steps forward, and at the end, with three steps back. This is the choreography of ascent and descent.

The daily prayers evolved from days of the Patriarchs to the men of the Great Assembly in the 5th century BCE until the first siddurim in the ninth century. But its basic shape, ascent, standing in the Presence, and descent have remained constant

Prayer is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. On this ladder of words, thoughts, and emotions, we gradually leave earth’s gravitational field. We move from the world around us, perceived by the senses, to an awareness of that which lies beyond - the Creator. At the end of this ascent, we are conscious of being in His presence. We then slowly make our way back to earth again - to where we started. But if prayer has worked, we are not the same.

For if the climb to heaven is to be meaningful, then we must bring a fragment of heaven down to earth. What Jacob realized when he woke from his vision is that “G-d is in this place.” Heaven is not somewhere else, but here. And we can become angels, His agents if, like Jacob, we have the ability to pray and the strength to dream that, not only can our prayers change destiny, they can change us.

If we just forget the I.