Who Knows One

Here is my transcription of, and excerpt from, a 2003 video interview in which Reb Zalman z’l answers questions about prayer. The interviewer, Sarah Y. Goldfein, used some of the video interview with Reb Zalman in her DVD series called “WHO KNOWS ONE: Jewish Perspectives on God.” You can see the two-part video of her interview with Reb Zalman here: Part I and Part II and, you can see her DVD series trailer here. Gabbai Seth Fishman



Why translate the Siddur? Why not just have people davven whatever is in their hearts and learn to talk to God on their own? What’s the advantage to having the translation?


Reb Nachman of Breslov teaches us that we should do hitbodedut, which is to speak from the heart, but my sense is that many people don’t have vocabulary to speak from the heart.

I’m going to read you a prayer here, the ahavat olam and you’ll see how this gives you an answer:

From ever,
You have loved us into life.
Yah — our God.
You nourished us with kindness and abundance.

Holy One!
For the sake of Your plan,
for Your honor,
and because we know that our parents trusted You,
and You, in turn, taught them how to live life
so as to be serving Your purpose,
we ask You to share with us
as you shared with them.
God, kind Parent, we live in the embrace of Your caring.
Make ours an understanding heart,
to become aware,
to be careful and effective and,
in this way, to make what You speak to us in Torah real,
and with so much love.

When we study Torah,
may we see clearly what is meant for us to know.
When we do Mitzvot,
may all our feelings sit harmonious in our heart.
Focus all our heart’s longing
to that moment when we stand in Your Presence,
in both awe and adoration.

May we never have to be apologetic for our love for You.

I read you these words so you could see how the translation helps.

Consider the line: Focus our heart’s longing to that moment when we stand in Your presence in both awe and adoration.

Then, if you close the Siddur for a while and go into your heart and get that sense of awe we had before when we were talking about how vast this universe is and get that sense of adoration that comes from considering that if the world is so beautiful, how beautiful must You be. And when you’ve gotten to those experiences of awe and adoration it opens up heart and mind for more and more.

Having gotten there, yes, I can also put the Siddur down and say, Ribbono shel olam! Today I think I’m going to have to deal with lots of things. You need to help out a certain person upstairs to have a Refuah Shleimah. Let the people who are trying to find a way for peace be able to find this way. Please, Ribbono shel olam, help us so that the terror that’s in the world should stop.

But a person can only what she or he can do. And I find that just the same way as a car needs a starter motor to get it going, so do we need the Siddur and its translation.

When I want to show people about davvening I tell them to space out each time. Never mind what’s going on in the synagogue. They’re going to just davven away whatever you’re doing. E.g., the prayer: Nishmat kol chai t’varech et shimcha Hashem Elokeinu can get a person to space out and see every living being in the world involved in blessing God. And so you spend time in parts and catch up with them later. It’s more important that you go into your own experienced.


Your response is interesting because in your book First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit you say that if someone came to you and didn’t know how to davven, you would advise them not to start with the Siddur but to start within themselves, so what changed?

Reb Zalman:

I observed that many people became paralyzed at the moment they tried to start, not knowing what to say. Sometimes they thought that if you wanted to talk to God you had to use the old language, like vouchsafe unto us and bestow oh Lord. The problem is they didn’t have models for this so when we gave them some models and they said them, they began to feel something in their heart and then they could be on their own.


Do you think that we can pray for anything that we want or are their certain things that we really shouldn’t pray for?


The gemara classifies certain things are tefillat shav, for example, a pregnant woman who asks that the baby will be a boy or a girl. But although that feels a bit not right, I don’t think that this casts the discussion on what’s really involved here because praying for anything is a more important thing, even if it is for something a bit not right. What’s more important is to be in relationship and prayer. It’s true that I can’t pray that God should bring back yesterday. But imagine if somebody wants to do Teshuvah and says that yesterday I did something so terrible, please God bring back yesterday. And what’s Teshuvah if not bringing back yesterday and taking out my will and energy from there my energy and asking to please erase that? So I don’t want to put any limits on people’s prayer.


Does prayer without Kavvanah have any meaning or purpose?


I can’t make sense of the notion of prayer without Kavvanah. For instance, consider if somebody doesn’t understand what they’re saying when they davven, and they’re coming to a Shul without even really believing in what they imagine God is. But let’s say they’re coming because papa has died and they want to say Kaddish and make themselves present at that moment for saying the Kaddish. Even this has value. The tradition says Tefillah b’lo kavvanah, k’guf b’lo Neshama, and it’s true. But sometimes, when something begins with just the guf being there, there’s a word said and all of a sudden the heart opens up. That’s what the Gemara calls, kula hai v’ulai, you’re doing these things and maybe something happens.


I went to Jewish day schools and we were required to go to davvening. Much of the time I was just there because they didn’t give me a choice. And then I’m there and not allowed to talk and so I may as well davven. Is there any value in this?


Yep. You know what? It’s wonderful.

Just think it through. Your question reminds me of a story which is really a joke: These guys are in a lifeboat and the sharks are all around. They decide to pray. They ask each other, Hey, do you know any prayers. And this one doesn’t know and that one doesn’t know. Then someone turns to another fellow and asks, hey didn’t you live in a Catholic neighborhood? Don’t you know any prayers? And this fellow answers, now that you mention it I remember how it went: Over the I-5, over the N-31. It was bingo he had heard in the church which was all he could scrape up.

And how many times people have gone into Shema Yisrael when they didn’t know anything else, and Barukh Atah and so on and so forth because those memories were put in there.

And I’m sure that when you went to day school and you davvened this way it put something in you too. And later, when you didn’t have a Siddur and it was early morning and you were on top of a mountain looking toward the east with the sun rising. Then nobody had to prompt you to say Hameir la-aretz v’ladorim aleha b’rachamim because it was recorded in your cells. So it’s good.


Does God need our prayers? Do they affect God in any way?


The God that’s involved in the world is not the infinite. People often make these mistakes and they don’t understand it.

There is a certain amount of energy that God focuses on this planet. I call that energy Ribono Shel olam. But it’s not the infinite. Eyn Sof is not the Ribono Shel olam.

Now I say this, but I’m also not implying that Ribono Shel Olam and Eyn Sof are separate. In a sense, they’re still the same.

But yet, I can call that focus that is on this planet Ribono Shel olam. Ribono shel olam is the one I worship.

Eyn Sof doesn’t need me, but there is an element in which the more people pray to God, the more powerful the God-field becomes which is almost like an energy field. If God is impotent, it’s because we haven’t invested in the God field.

That’s a whole long thing but that’s the best I can do in brief.

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