What Do You Look at When You Pray?

Posted On Apr 21, 2001 / 5761

A good question has a long afterlife. It does not let go of us till it gets the kind of answer it deserves. Over lunch a few weeks ago, a devoted donor of the Seminary asked me what I look at when I pray? The directness of the question bespoke real concern; its simplicity, deep profundity. I was taken aback for I too had been grappling with the question which cuts to the core of Judaism.

The truth is that Judaism offers us little to look at. Synagogues are and always have been bereft of icons. As Prof. Lee I. Levine of the Hebrew University shows in his masterful new book on the history of the ancient synagogue, pagans put an idol in the apse of their temples. In contrast, Jews in Palestine, by the third century C.E. had chosen to adorn the apse of their synagogues with an ark for the Torah. Architecture mirrored theology. Creator of the cosmos and unfettered by nature, the God of the Torah defied representation. The second of the Ten Commandments condemned the impulse to give artistic expression to God who is incarnate only in the words of a sacred book.

The rotunda of the National Archives in Washington reminds us of a synagogue. Front and center is nothing but a large stone ark in which are preserved the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The austerity of the space matches the abstract nature of its sacred contents. No icons distract our attention from the power of the word.

The modest pretensions of the synagogue pale in comparison to the immediacy of the Tabernacle. At its consecration, of which we read this week, the start of formal worship is to be marked by a visual experience of the Divine. It is nothing less than a fire “which came forth from before the Lord (Leviticus 9:24)” that consumed Aaron’s sacrifices on the altar in the presence of a jubilant multitude, thereby inaugurating the Tabernacle. The prolonged effort that had gone into its construction and the preparation of its priests had not been in vain. On the brink of their journey, the people of Israel were reassured of God’s favor and presence.

Yet what draws us to this tale of encounter is the mysterious death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Triumph is marred by tragedy. Guilty of approaching God with a “strange fire,” they are zapped by the same fire that “came forth from before the Lord (10:2).” Behavior inappropriate to the sanctity of the moment, whatever it might have been, grievously roils the relationship to the Almighty. In this sense, to be assailed by “a strange fire” is a more common experience than to witness a sign of divine favor. How often is our quest for the holy derailed by an intrusion of alien thoughts! The fate of Nadab and Abihu may be exceptional; the underlying condition is universal.

This is doubly so in Judaism. The absence of a visual focus makes it harder to keep strange thoughts at bay. The advantage of an iconographic religion is that art enhances our ability to concentrate. In Judaism there are no visual props. Concentration in prayer is an inner state achieved through the exclusion of all distractions. When R. Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna, would recite the first line of the Shema, he would cover his eyes with his hands, a temporary shield against external distractions. The gesture corresponded to the gravity of the moment: to affirm the faith called for total concentration. And to this day devout Jews do the same (B.T. Berakhot, 13b; Shulhan ArukhOreh Hayyim, 61:5).

Above all, the unpremeditated act of Nadab and Abihu was an act of self-assertion in a setting that called for self-contraction. To find God is to lose ourselves first. Strange thoughts flourish in the soil of our self-consciousness. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Reb Mehel of Zlothshov understood the comforting words of Moses to his frightened flock at Sinai, “I stand between God and you (Deuteronomy 5:5)” to enunciate an eternal truth, namely, that the “I” always stands between God and us (A Passion for Truth, p. 98). Indeed, Hasidic thought is replete with daring exegetical moves to advance the importance of self-transcendence as the key to reaching God in prayer.

Still at best such moments remain infrequent and ephemeral. It is their quality and not their quantity that matter. In a brilliant textual insight, the Mishna detects in the opening passages of Leviticus that God is pleased with the burnt offering of an Israelite whether it is an expensive bull, a more affordable bird or inexpensive meal offering. In each instance the Torah describes the divine reaction with the same words, “an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9, 17; 2:9).” Clearly, the purity of intent rather than the cost of the sacrifice is what elicits God’s pleasure, which suggests to the Mishna that what counts most of all is “that we direct our minds to heaven (Mishna, Menahot, 13:11).” With the destruction of the Temple, this democratic principle comes to shape the spirit of the synagogue (B.T. Berakhot 17a).

I take the counsel to direct our thoughts to heaven quite literally. In response to the question of what do I look at when I pray, I answered that I imagine the view of the heavenly expanse at 37,000 feet. Each time I fly in daylight I am filled with a sense of awe at the radiant tranquility and infinite grandeur of the formless space that envelops our blue planet. If picture God I must, this is the imageless vista which flashes through my mind. It helps me melt down my ego to a point where nothingness flows into nothingness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mini are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.