Creating maximaly jarring prayer encounters

I am surprised (and not surprised) that we do not see more people in our houses of prayer standing and trembling, having taken three steps back to begin the silent prayer and then suddenly gripped with seizures of realization that they are about to speak before the Holy One, Blessed is He, face to face, that they are about to take one step into the holy city, another into the palace, and another in the throne room itself, that they are about to expose their thoughts and hopes and dreams (and flaws and errors) to the One Who knows, to the All-Capable. Would you not be hesitant, if not completely paralyzed??

And yet, this is the trade-off of expecting and formulating regular, everyday prayer. Perhaps it could not have been expected that most people would be able to engage with regular prayer and maintain that level of intensity and awareness. It is inherently and deeply disruptive. It throws every aspect of ourselves and the lives we live into question. The rhythm of a life that engages seriously with regular prayer is one in which the veil between us and our God is repeatedly - endlessly - torn aside and restored, torn aside and restored. How is one to manage? How can we ramp up sufficiently to acknowledge and engage with the greatest level of intensity that we can manage, and then ramp down enough to engage with the world we live in without being overly distracted, or even disillusioned?

In this piece, we will deal with the question of ramping up - specifically how, within the amidah itself, we can bring ourselves to the fullest possible realization of the magnitude of the moment as early as possible within the amidah, so that most if not all of our encounter with the Divine will be dynamic, intense, real, impacting, personal, inspiring, challenging, and honest.


The beauty and smoothness of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” threatens to hide the utterly frightening truth that hides underneath. This is a blunt statement of Who it is we are talking to, and the God to Whom we are talking could possibly be considered to be nice and kind, but there is just so much more, and once we start to engage with more layers of the reality of God, the experience of encounter can be deeply unsettling - not to mention inspiring, encouraging, and invigorating. When we are able to focus on these words and their implications, we broaden our thinking beyond the illusion of a small God to whom we offer much flattery and little of ourselves. For that paltry deity we substitute the God Who surrounds us, calls us forth into being, inspires us, challenges us, accompanies us, cares for us.

Each component of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” can re-alert us to those other layers.

אלהי יעקב כו'. לשון אלהים הוא כולל כל כחות אלהים ובכל א' מאבות היה בו כח אלהי מיוחד

“The God of Ya’akov” - the word ‘Elo-kim’ includes all the Divine capacities, and within each of the Patriarchs there was a unique Divine power



So, Who is the God of Avraham? 

Avraham’s first encounter with this God (Bereishit 12:1) is a challenge to embark on a great adventure. It is a call away from home and its comforts toward a future that is unknown, but also saturated with potential. 

When I invoke the God of Avraham, I am invoking the God Who calls me to adventure as well, Who calls me away from the comfortable life I think I want toward the potentials I might not otherwise engage with.

Avraham continues to encounter this God, albeit unpredictably - communications arrive and then disappear like fireflies. This is not a God Who provides the regular and predicable support of an ongoing instructional narrative. Rather, there are moments of clarity surrounded by periods of uncertainty. “Am I still going the right way?”

The next time Avraham encounters this God (12:7) there is a promise - “I will give this land to your children.” That is certainly enough to keep Avraham going. He builds an altar. 

Then, brutal silence amidst a famine (12:10). What is Avraham to do? If he gets guidance from that God, we don’t know about it. He makes a decision. Maybe it is a good one. Maybe it is not. He has to live with it and deal with the consequences. Is that God still with him?

He goes down to Egypt, and Sarah his wife is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Maybe it was the wrong choice. And yet, “God struck Pharaoh with great plagues, and also his house, on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram” (12:17). Even if it was a bad choice, God is there to support him and ensure that matters don’t spin out of control. 

Soon thereafter, another difficult decision: Avram’s nephew, Lot, is mishandling his now-abundant possessions, and it is not going well. Avram decides to split from him. Did he make the right choice? Is he still in God’s favor? “God said to Avram, after Lot had split from him, ‘Lift up your eyes and see from the place where you stand, north, south, east, and west. The land that you see, I will give it to you and your children, forever. I will make your seed like the dust of the earth such that, even if a person could count the dust of the earth, then he could your children. Get up, walk the length and width of the land, for I have given it to you.”

The God of Avraham is a God who makes promises that seem like they could never come true. Since at that point Avraham was childless and old, it must have seemed impossible that he would have any children, let alone more than the dust of the earth.

And then, as God is again silent, Avram is called upon to fight a war, offering no specific guidance. Avram does what he must, according to his values and instincts. His values include loyalty to his nephew, as well as an unwillingness to profit from the war. Only when the war is over does God appear to him again. Rashi (15:1) says God wanted to reassure him that he had not exhausted his merits in that war. God assures him that his future reward - children, the land - stands. Avram has doubts - he has no children, only his trusted servant. God assures him again that he will have children from his own loins. Taking him outside (Rashi indicates that he took him outside of his astrology, as Avram pointed to the constellations and insisted that they indicated he would not have any children) God tells him that his children would be more numerous than the stars. Avram believes him, but still harbors doubts - “How do I know that I will inherit it?” (Many wonder at his question - after all, he believed God just two verses ago! Some propose that he wondered how his children would merit to keep the land of Israel and to remain in God’s good graces, even if they are in exile.)  God has Avram make certain sacrifices and then casts a deep sleep upon him. He informs Avram that his children will be slaves, and will then go free and inherit the land. 

In chapter 17, Avram is told by God to circumcise himself. God says, “Walk before me, and be tamim!” This is understand as the ability to walk before Hashem, unlike Noach, who walked with Hashem (see Rashi on Gen. 6:9). Avraham (with his new name) is expected to be able to navigate the spaces in which God has not made clear to him what to do. 

Soon thereafter, the command of the Akeidah. This God continues to challenge, again forcing Avraham to abandon everything he knows and expects and to follow after this God. 

Clues about the God of Avraham continue in this way until the end: moments of clarity, sparse instructions about how to be, and promises of a fulfilling future interspersed within long bouts of silence in which Avraham must find his own way. 

And this is the God we pray to when we pray to the God of Avraham: God Who calls us toward our future and the adventures that will inevitably ensue, Who gives us guidance and also requires us to figure things out on our own (and increasingly trusts us to do so), Who binds us in covenant and demands everything of us, and also promises to give us everything in return, Who asks the impossible and then shows that it is possible.


Who is the God of Yitzhak?

Yitzhak’s relationship with God begins when he is bound to the altar by his father. He is subject to a command that was not given to him, that he cannot understand. In important ways, he is a function of someone else’s destiny and someone else’s story. 

His task, it seems, is opposite of his father’s: do not go forth, do not embark on adventure, do not go seeking your destiny. Rather, all of that is already in motion. Allow it to happen to you. The people around you - your father, your father’s servant, your wife, your sons - will be the ones who play an active role in the fulfillment of your destiny. 

The God of Yitzhak also speaks to him infrequently (this is a theme - the God to Whom we pray does not often communicate). The first time (26:2) is to tell him not to go the wrong way - “Do not go down to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I have indicated to you. Live in this land, and I will be with you and bless you, for I have given these lands to you and your children, and I will fulfill My promise that I made to Avraham your father. And I will increase your seed like the stars of the sky, and I will give your offspring these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring, because Avraham listened to my voice and kept my commandments and laws and Torahs…”

The God of Yitzhak indeed blesses Yitzhak - his wealth increases beyond the measure of his actions. His servants find abundant water. Yitzhak has the power of blessing. And, he is blind. His ability to give blessing depends upon the positioning of the person or people who seek to receive it. There is a gap between what happens through Yitzhak and what Yitzhak chooses to do. 

Who is the God of Yitzhak? The God of Yitzhak requires very little input from us, once we are bound to Him. The God of Yitzhak puts all things in motion and ensures that we are moving forward. We have very little to contribute.

So, when we pray to God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, we are praying to God Who, on one hand, requires great effort from us, Who tests us, Who requires that we make decisions in hard circumstances and take risks and believe and commit, and on the other hand requires almost nothing of us, Who cares for us and ensures our growth and success even when we are powerless to accomplish such things on our own.


Who is the God of Ya’akov?

The God of Ya’akov first speaks to him from the top of a ladder, in a dream. This is indeed the God of his father and grandfather, and he will indeed inherit this land. The people of the world will indeed be blessed by his children, and he will indeed be protected. But there are some words that imply contingency - “I will not abandon you until I have fulfilled what I have spoken to you.” Ya’akov responds in kind: “If God is with me… and protects me… then Hashem will be my God.”

God’s subsequent protection does not shield Ya’akov from the challenges he faces - in the house of Lavan, with the rape of DInah, with the acrimony among his sons, the sale of Yoseph. His life seems harder even than Avraham’s. And yet, Ya’akov does tell Lavan, “These twenty years, I served you in your home, fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you switched by wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzhak hadn’t been inclined toward me, you would have sent me forth empty-handed.” Ya’akov feels that God is, in fact, with him. 

Ya’akov’s life is marked by hardship after hardship, like his grandfather’s. But he is shown that those are not separate from his relationship to God. “God said to him, ‘Your name Ya’akov - your name shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but rather Yisrael shall be your name.’ And He called him Yisrael.” And we know from the account of his wrestling with the angel that Yisrael implies that “you have striven with God and men, and you have proven capable.” 

Ya’akov’s God sounds like Avraham’s God: challenge after challenge, marked by sparse communication. What is the difference between them? The Gemarra Pesachim 88a writes:

אמר רבי אלעזר מאי דכתיב והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו לכו ונעלה אל הר ה' אל בית אלהי יעקב וגו' אלהי יעקב ולא אלהי אברהם ויצחק אלא לא כאברהם שכתוב בו הר שנאמר אשר יאמר היום בהר ה' יראה ולא כיצחק שכתוב בו שדה שנאמר ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה אלא כיעקב שקראו בית שנאמר ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית אל

Rabbi Elazar said, what does the verse mean that says ‘And the many nations will go and say, “Let us walk and go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Ya’akov”’? The God of Ya’akov and not the God of Avraham and Yitzhak? Specifically not like Avraham about whom the word ‘mountain’ is used, as is written, ‘as people will not say, God is seen on the mountain,’ and not like Yitzhak, for by Yitzhak the word ‘field’ is used, as is written, ‘and Yitzhak went out to converse in the field,’ but rather like Ya’akov, who called [the place] a house, as is written, ‘and he called the name of that place the House of God.’

The difference between the God of Avraham and the God of Ya’akov is one of accessibility. Despite the lack of communication, Ya’akov concludes that God is near to him, that there is constant relationship. 

So, the element introduces when we invoke the God of Ya’akov is not about the mission or the communication. It is about proximity, closeness, a sense of home, of not being alone in the world. Of being with

So, in conclusion, when we invoke the God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, the God of Ya’akov, we are calling out to the God who calls out to us in adventure, the God who sees when we do not and moves us toward our destiny (whether we know it or not) and the God whom we feel is with us as navigate. 


If I can become conscious of all of those elements of my relationship with the Divine, that would be quite the beginning of a prayer-encounter! If it is in fact meant to be personalized, which I suspect it is, then each of us can inhabit those elements in ways that are maximally impacting and alive for us.

The Rav and Rebbe Nachman on Tefillah

I have always wondered what it was like to pray with Rav Soloveitchik - primarily, and with some degree of confusion - because I have davened in many Modern Orthodox institutions in which the service felt somewhat distant from the cutting edge of encounter that I believe was articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and persona. 

So I found this article about the differences between the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur and the Rav’s own nusach/practice/hashkafa to be quite interesting. 

Let me say here that I am in no way qualified - nor do I at all intend - to address Yaakov Jaffe’s claims about how the Rav prayed, and whether this Siddur is a useful window into what the Rav would want us to know about prayer. Rather, I am accepting the claims of this article wholesale and focusing my attention on what may have been a minor point to the author but is very alive for me as an issue. Jaffe writes: 

R. Soloveitchik helped convey the feeling of surrender towards God and Halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. Or, in the words of the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur (120):

Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir…. An acknowledgment of His grandeur—an introduction with serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.


Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s customs are grounded in a lack of “license” or “right” to pray, unless certain preconditions and introductory prayers have been invoked first.

Some prayers are omitted because they were created in the modern period, and carry the hubris of creativity, unbecoming of the humble, defeated penitent.

Other prayers are omitted because they are too anthropomorphic in nature, or describe the Creator on the same level as human beings and not as significantly greater and beyond.

At other times, prayers must be removed from the Siddur because we cannot offer a prayer at the wrong time in the service, or the wrong day of the week, so we recognize withdrawal by confessing that we cannot offer this particular prayer at this particular time.

We accept defeat by not repeating verses in the service, and not reciting mystical prayers or catechisms. We humbly pray what we can bring ourselves to say, but nothing more. 

What I find particularly intriguing here is, for lack of a better word, the monolithic nature of prayer that is being attributed to the Rav. The way that Jaffe lays it out, the Rav’s approach to prayer was singular and absolute: prayer is a function of surrender, withdrawal, recoil, defeat. “Prayer is rendered with caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid.” “The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers.” “Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy."

Again I write what I am about to write with the caveat that I am not wading into the debate of whether or not this is an accurate appraisal of the Rav’s take on prayer. And I have no doubt that the Rav’s approach is based upon seamless and accurate readings of countless texts, with the Rav’s incredible genius for assembling those texts into a cohesive view. But when I read this article, I think of something Rebbe Nachman wrote:

כִּי יֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַעְלָה וְיֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַטָּה, דְּהַיְנוּ עוֹלָם הָעֶלְיוֹן וְעוֹלָם הַתַּחְתּוֹן, בְּחִינַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַעְלָה, שֶׁאֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל בִּידִיעָתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת הַשָֹֹּגָה שֶׁל מָה, בְּחִינַת: 'מֶה חָמִית מַה פִּשְׁפַּשְׁתְּ', בְּחִינַת: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ וּלְהֶפֶךְ: צָרִיךְ לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַטָּה, שֶׁאַדְּרַבָּא, מְלֹא כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (יְשַׁעְיָה ו). כִּי יֵשׁ שׁוֹכְנֵי עָפָר, שֶׁהֵם בְּנֵי - אָדָם הַמּוּנָחִים בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה, וְנִדְמֶה לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם רְחוֹקִים מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְעוֹרְרָם וְלַהֲקִיצָם, בִּבְחִינַת (שָׁם כ"ו): "הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר". וּלְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם שֶׁה' עִמָּם, וְהֵם סְמוּכִים - אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ". וּלְחַזְּקָם וּלְעוֹרְרָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ מְיָאֲשִׁין עַצְמָן, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כִּי עֲדַיִן הֵם אֵצֶל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וּקְרוֹבִים - אֵלָיו, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ”
“For there are those who dwell below, and those who dwell above (darei malah) - meaning, the upper world and the lower world, an aspect of heaven and earth. And the righteous one must show those who dwell above that they know nothing of the knowledge of God, and this is the aspect of ‘what?’, from the concept (in the Tikunei Zohar), ‘What have you actually seen? What have you searched out?’, a function of ‘Where is the place of His Glory?’ And, the opposite: the righteous one needs to show those who dwell below that, the opposite! The world is full of His Glory. For there are those who dwell below, who are people who are situated at the lowest level, and it seems to them that they are very far from Him, may He be blessed, and the righteous one must awaken them and rouse them, in the sense of ‘wake up and shout, you who dwell in the dust,’ and to reveal to them that Hashem is with them, and they are in proximity to Him, because ’the world is full of His Glory,’ and to encourage them and to rouse them, such that they not despair, God forbid, for they are still near God and close to Him, for ‘the world is full of His Glory.’

I do not know if it is fair or reasonable or accurate to map the Rav into Rebbe Nachman’s configuration, but assuming it is OK to do so, the Rav is davening like Rebbe Nachman’s darei malah - one who dwells above. On this map, the one who dwells above moves and grows through realizing that, really, he knows nothing at all. He is, as it were, grasping in the dark for some foothold, some place where he can stand in relation to the Divine.

But for Rebbe Nachman, in this particular framework, there is another position from which to pray - those who feel so far from God that they are in danger of giving up on relationship with Him must be shown that, in fact, they are very close to God. I believe this means that there is no barrier to prayer, no need (or place) for the kind of clamoring in the dark that the Rav describes. 

In this sense, the Rav’s view of prayer addresses only one particular kind of pray-er, and in that sense, as Jaffe correctly, points out, the Koren siddur is really not a Soloveitchik siddur. But what I find useful for my own purposes is the acknowledgment that there are different kinds of pray-ers (and therefore different kinds of siddurim). 

And a question I have - and I surrender, withdraw, and admit defeat when bringing this question to bear on the Rav himself, who seemed to be eternally darei malah on this point - is around how we are different kinds of pray-ers at different times. Sometimes we are darei malah - we are so close that we need to remember how far we are. And sometimes (I imagine this is pretty common for most of us) we are darei mata - dwelling below, lost, out of contact, wondering what it is we are even doing by opening a prayer book because it feels futile, it feels like no one is listening (and, possibly, no one is even praying). At such points, the Rav’s warnings about the true status of “Mortal man, puny and insignificant” are only counterproductive. Rather than engender awe, they engender despair. And, in Rebbe Nachman’s telling, it is actually inaccurate in that it only articulates one approach to prayer. At such times, a different sort of prayer is needed. Maybe the Koren Siddur, if it does not articulate the Rav’s own view, could theoretically be useful at those moments. 

On the point of having access to a varied tool box containing different modes of prayer, I offer this passage from Gemarra Berachot:

מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מאריך יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו כמה ארכן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מאריך יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב ביה את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה וגו' שוב מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מקצר יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו כמה קצרן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מקצר יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב אל נא רפא נא לה
“There is a an occurrence when a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayers) before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed at excessive length. Rabbi Eliezer’s students said to him, “Rebbe! What a lengthy pray-er this one is!” He answered them “He is not praying any longer than Moshe our teacher, about whom it is written, ‘For those 40 days and nights…’ Later, there was an occurrence of a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayer before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed very succinctly. His students said to him “What a short pray-er this one is!” He said to them, “No shorter than Moshe our teacher, about whom we are told (that he prayed) ‘Please, God, heal her, please.’”