Day by day

"Know today and take into your heart that HaVaYaH is the only God in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is none other" (Deuteronomy 4:39)

Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge has left mankind in a state of distorted consciousness.

True knowledge -- holy Daat -- is a state of consciousness in which we are aware of the truth: that all that exists is from HaVaYaH, and He alone rules over the entire creation -- "in the heavens above and on earth below". It is not enough to know this intellectually. We have to work to bring this knowledge from our heads down into our hearts until it is something we feel and are constantly aware of even as we go about our mundane activities. God is not only somewhere "out there" -- "in the heavens above". God is with us here and now -- "on the earth below" and in all the details of our lives!

This is a level of knowledge and awareness that many people rarely if ever experience, though it is embedded deep within everyone's soul. Most of the time, however, the dictates of everyday life keep our conscious minds so preoccupied with our immediate needs and interests that it takes a positive effort to make ourselves aware of God's presence and see the Godly wisdom contained in all things. The difficulty in maintaining this awareness amidst all the distractions from the surrounding world and from our own worldly egos is one of the consequences of Adam's eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Prayer: An exercise in awareness

The mission of the founding fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to forge a path of ascent so that mankind could return to Adam's spiritual level before the sin. Our heritage from the fathers is the rich treasury of Jewish practice, many aspects of which are bound up with elevating ourselves above ego-consciousness to the level of Daat, spiritual knowledge and awareness.

This is especially true in the case of the prayers and blessings recited at various points through the day. Abraham instituted the morning prayer and the blessing after eating. Isaac and Jacob instituted the afternoon and evening prayers. Over the generations the daily prayer ritual was expanded and embellished until it took its present form as found in the classic Siddur -- the "Order" of prayers -- shared (with minor differences) by Jewish communities all over the world. The main blessings and prayers were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly in the early Second Temple period (3rd century B.C.E.). All of them were prophets who had received the mystical tradition of the Torah via a direct line of transmission stretching back to Moses and the Patriarchs.

Having been composed by mystics who were masters of the Hebrew letters and their secrets, the very words of the Hebrew prayers are power-combinations of letters that transmit spiritual influence upwards into the higher worlds in order to channel a flow of divine goodness and blessing back down into this world. At the same time the blessings and prayers in the Siddur have a simple, readily understandable meaning as affirmations of faith, expressions of gratitude, praise, prayerful invocations and requests.

Prayer is an act of service. In order to channel divine blessing it is necessary to speak out the actual letters and words of the prayers with our very mouths, causing the air of this world of Asiyah to vibrate so as to send fanning ripples of influence to all the higher worlds. Yet prayer is called the "service of the heart". This is because although the words must actually be spoken, the essence of the work of prayer is in the mind and heart. It is to know and feel the meaning and significance of the words we are saying. It is this focusing of attention that elevates our minds above ego-consciousness to Daat. Prayer is an exercise in awareness.

The "simple meaning" of the prayers can differ from person to person, and indeed it may change and develop as a person advances on the spiritual pathway. Our purpose here is to offer some suggestions about how the daily blessings and prayers can be used to focus our awareness on God's creative power as manifested in the world of nature around us and to help us cultivate attitudes of thankfulness, humility and social and environmental responsibility.

The Morning Blessings

On waking up in the morning, the first act of the day is to pour water over our hands in order to cleanse them of the unholy physicality that overtakes the body during sleep. The hands are the instruments with which we act in this material world of Asiyah. By pouring the pure waters of Chessed-kindness over our hands, we elevate them from being the "hands of Esau" serving only the self, and dedicate them to holy action in God's service throughout the day.

After getting up, the first instinct of the worldly ego may be to satisfy the body's cravings for food and then get busy attending to its other needs. It is a training in self-control to break this instinct and instead make time first thing in the morning to attend to our spiritual needs through a period of meditation and prayer.

The morning prayers begin with a series of blessings of thanksgiving for some of the most basic kindnesses God shows us every single day.

First is the blessing over the human body, Asher yatzar: "Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Who fashioned man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities...." This is one of many blessings that are associated with a specific physical function. It is recited after relieving ourselves. The blessing elevates the physical function by turning it into an occasion for inner meditation and thanksgiving for the marvels of God's creation as manifested in the subtle wisdom of the body's design and functioning. Only through the body can the soul exist in and interact with the physical world. Recognizing the divine wisdom in the body itself is the first step in grasping the spiritual meaning of our existence in the physical world. Only with this awareness is it possible to bring balance and harmony into our interactions with the surrounding world.

The blessing of Asher yatzar is followed by a blessing of thanks for the soul and its return to the body after sleep, and blessings over God's gift of the Torah, which guides us in every aspect and detail of our life in this world.

Then come Birkhot Hashachar, the "Morning Blessings", expressing our gratitude for specific benefits that we enjoy in this world, such as our ability to see, the fact that we have clothes, we can move our limbs, stand up, walk around, etc. Each blessing helps us make a connection between the general idea of God, King of the Universe, and the specific aspect of life to which the blessing refers.

The Sacrificial Readings

The purpose of the prayer service is to bind this world and our lives within it to the higher spiritual worlds. What the synagogue prayer services are intended to accomplish for the individual and the community, the daily Temple rituals accomplish for the whole world, bringing harmony into mankind's interaction with the natural environment.

In the absence of the Temple, the most we can do is to re-enact these rituals in our minds and on our lips. One of the ways this is done is through the customary reading of certain Biblical and Talmudic passages relating to the daily sacrifices, kindling of the Menorah (candelabrum), burning of the incense, and other aspects of the Temple rituals.

Lack of familiarity with these rituals may make them seem strange at first or even primitive. This may be because they involve such primal elements, such as the water with which the priests washed their hands and feet, the blood of the sacrificial lambs, the fire on the altar, the salt, the corn and wine, the pure olive oil of the Menorah and the eleven herbs and spices in the incense.

In fact the Temple rituals with their music, song and prayer brought the mineral, vegetable and animal and human worlds together in acts of joyous worship that elevated all of them, drawing sustenance and blessing to each on its proper level and forging harmony between them all.

In the present state of imbalance between mankind and the natural environment, daily reading of the sacrificial portions is an act of faith in the power of our thoughts, our words and the yearning of our hearts to initiate a new order in which the Temple will be rebuilt and the Torah of peace and harmony will go out from Jerusalem to all the world.

Psukey dezimra: Verses of Song

The Kabbalah teaches that the morning prayer service is a ladder of ascent leading the spiritual devotee upwards step by step from this physical world of Asiyah to the higher spiritual worlds. The Morning Blessings relating to our daily physical needs and the Sacrificial Readings about the animal offerings and other Temple rituals are obviously very much bound up with this world.

The next section of the prayer service, known as Psukey dezimra, "Verses of Song", consists of various psalms (or extracts from psalms) together with other scriptural passages of praise and song. This section of the service corresponds to the spiritual World of Yetzirah ("Formation"), which is the world of the lower angels, the spiritual forces (Tzurot) underlying and supervising all the various material and physical processes in the world of Asiyah (see Love and Kindness).

The "Verses of Song" includes several vivid depictions of the world of nature:

"Call out to God with thanks, with the harp sing to our God -- Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who prepares rain for the earth, Who makes mountains sprout with grass. He gives to an animal its food, to the young ravens that cry out...." (Psalms 147:7-9).

"Halleluyah! Praise HaVaYaH from the heavens, praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels; praise Him all His legions. Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all bright stars. Praise Him, the most exalted of the heavens and the waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise the Name of HaVaYaH, for He commanded and they were created. And He established them forever and ever; He issued a decree that will not change. Praise HaVaYaH from the earth, sea giants and all watery depths. Fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind fulfilling His word. Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars. Beasts and all cattle, crawling things and winged fowl. Kings of the earth and all governments, princes and all judges on earth. Young men and also maidens, old men together with youths. Let them praise the Name of HaVaYaH, for His Name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven...." (ibid. 148:1-13).

Even if our lives are centered mainly in today's man-made urban environment, daily mindful recital of these magnificent passages cannot but expand our horizons and enhance our consciousness of the awesomely wondrous natural environment within which our self-obsessed culture pursues its frenetic course. The "Verses of Song" instill a joyous faith and trust that within and behind all the different phenomena around us lies the hand of the One Creator, Whose tender kindnesses and mercies are to be discerned in all the workings of the universe.

The Shema and Amidah Prayer

This faith reaches its fullest expression in the recital of the Shema, our affirmation of the unity of God: "Hear, Israel, HaVaYaH is our God, HaVaYaH is one!" The Shema is recited in the morning and the evening. The timing is thus related to one of the most basic cycles of creation: day and night, two opposites. It is necessary to recite the Shema at the beginning of both, in order to instill within us the faith that God's unity transcends opposites. The timing of the morning Shema is related to the time of sunrise. The morning prayer thus keeps us aware of this most basic natural phenomenon and helps us tap into the spiritual potential at this moment of renewal, growth and divine love.

The recital of the morning Shema is preceded by the blessing of Yotzer ohr, "He forms the light and creates darkness...." This blessing takes us from contemplation of the visible light of the sun and other heavenly luminaries to the invisible "angels" or spiritual forces that give them their energy and determine their orbits and influence. The lower angels in the World of Yetzirah receive their power from the higher angels in the World of Beriyah, "Creation". All these angels are part of a magnificent, orchestrated whole singing the praises of the One God.

The Shema and its blessings is followed by the Amidah, the "Standing Prayer" of nineteen blessings recited in a whisper of rapt devotion to God. The Amidah prayer -- corresponding to the highest "world", that of Atzilut, is the climax of the entire service. Having affirmed in the Shema our faith in God's total power over all creation and His involvement in every detail, we now have the courage to step forward with reverence and humility in a private, intimate audience with the King and prayerfully put our own requests.

The nineteen blessings of the weekday Amidah prayer include prayers for all our needs individually and collectively. Praying to God for our various needs implants in us the trust that even as we ourselves take whatever active steps we deem necessary in order to satisfy them, this can be achieved only with the help of God and in obedience to His laws. This certainly applies to rectifying the world and bringing about a new order in which peace and harmony will reign. To pray to God daily not only for our own needs but for the welfare of the community and the whole world is to take responsibility.

Afternoon and evening services

Being in and of this material world, we have no option but to pursue our daily business, each one according to his or her vocation. Even trying to satisfy our most basic physical needs can become very time- and energy-consuming. It is easy to become so mentally absorbed in the mundane that we lose our higher Daat-consciousness and spiritual sensitivity. In order to "re-energize" spiritually, it is necessary periodically to step back from the mundane world and take a more holistic view of our lives in God's kingdom by making special times for prayer and contemplation.

The timing of the afternoon and evening prayers is related to the decline and setting of the sun, which again keeps us spiritually aligned in rhythm with this most basic natural cycle. In particular the first blessing before the evening Shema, Hamaariv aravim, provides an opportunity to lift our inner eye to the heavens and contemplate the wonder and glory of the natural creation:

"Blessed are You, HaVaYaH, our God, King of the universe, who by His word brings on evenings, with wisdom opens gates, with understanding alters periods, changes the seasons and orders the stars in their heavenly constellations as He wills. He creates day and night, removing light before darkness and darkness before light. He causes day to pass and brings night, and separates between day and night...."

The Amidah prayer is recited in both the afternoon and evening services just as it is in the morning service. Since it is a prayer not only for all our individual needs but for those of the wider community and the rectification of the entire world, our constant recital of the Amidah with renewed longing and yearning three times a day is an act of the highest commitment and service.


Our bodily survival in the physical world depends upon eating, a function that necessarily puts us in direct contact with the natural environment. For many people, the interaction has the character of a battle, which is why the Hebrew word for man's most basic food, bread -- Lechem -- is related to the word miLChaMah, which means war.

"Because you ate from the tree from which I ordered you not to eat, the ground is cursed for you. You will have to toil to eat from it all the days of your life.... By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread...." (Genesis 3:17-19).

Throughout human history, making a living has been a struggle for most people, and so it still is today. Ironically, in an age when technology has brought so many to hitherto undreamed of levels of prosperity, the war to secure mankind's needs and desires has turned into a war of assault on the natural environment. Untrammeled consumerism, extravagance and waste are ravaging and despoiling the natural environment in a way that threatens our future survival.

The many mitzvot, blessings and prayers surrounding the earning, preparation and ingestion of our food turn what would otherwise be a purely physical, material process of self-gratification into an exalted service that deepens our understanding and appreciation of the wonder and mystery of creation.

Man's interaction with the material world to make a living is fraught with danger because of the power of the material world to suck us in and make us forget our spiritual mission. Whether we produce our food directly from the earth through agriculture and raising animals or earn it through some other economic activity, there are mitzvot relating to every different kind of activity. In agriculture, business or any other field, the relevant mitzvot provide us with ways of transforming the physical act into a pathway of connection with God. The discipline of the mitzvot enables to keep our involvement in the physical world within its proper limits so that is serves us in our spiritual goals rather than deflecting us from them.

The actual preparation of food is surrounded with many mitzvot: avoidance of all forbidden foods, including forbidden species; separation of tithes from agricultural produce of Israel; inspection of food to avoid worms and bugs, etc.; separation of the priestly Chalah from dough; proper slaughter of animals and birds; not cooking or eating meat and milk together, and so on. Such mitzvot directly govern the way we interact with the natural world, helping us maintain our spiritual alignment when taking from it what we need. Before eating, the table should be arranged with dignity and honor. Food should be treated with great reverence. Prior to eating bread, the hands should be ritually washed with the waters of Chessed-kindness to elevate them from being the "hands of Esau" to instruments of holy service.

When at last we put the food into our mouths this can easily turn into a moment of selfish greed and lust. Judaism transmutes it into one of spiritual devotion and divine connection through the blessings recited over various different kinds of food. It is our recital of the blessing that elevates us from the animal level to that of a human. Through the words of our lips and the meditation in our hearts we connect the specific fruit or other food we are about to eat with its Creator, the Source of all life and sustenance, thereby enabling the divine sparks within the food to enter our system so as to nourish our souls as well as our bodies.

Having satisfied our physical hunger, the natural tendency is to leave the body to its work of digesting and assimilating the food while we get up and move on to whatever we want to do next. But the Torah teaches us to control this tendency and take a few moments after eating to focus on the divine system of nutrition and sustenance through the recital of Birkhat Hamazon after eating bread or the appropriate after-blessing for other foods. Acknowledging how God provides us with all our needs is a powerful training in faith and trust, and helps curb greed and selfishness.

Other blessings

Besides the blessings over food, there are many other blessings to be recited at other junctures. These include blessings over fragrant smells, striking natural phenomena such as comets, great mountains and rivers, the ocean, thunder and lightning, rainbows, and exceptionally beautiful trees and animals. Each of these blessings provides an opportunity to deepen the moment by enabling us to connect the specific experience with God, Creator of the Universe.



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