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Pillar of Prayer

This week's Torah portion, Noah, has a verse that has become a foundation for the spiritual and mystical approach to prayer. In Genesis 6:16, we find God saying to Noah, "Make a tzohar (light) for the teivah(ark)." The Hebrew word "tzohar" has two basic interpretations in the Talmud: "radiant gemstone" and "skylight", but they both mean "a source of light."

Here is where things get interesting. The Hebrew word for "ark" "teivah" has various meanings. Basically, "teivah" means "container". A "teivah" can mean a mailbox. A "teivah" is what Moses' mother put him in when she saved him from Pharaoh's decree to kill all the male children.

Fascinatingly, this Hebrew word for container, "teivah", also means "word", in the sense of a written word - a written form that "contains" meaning. (There are three Hebrew words for the English word "word" - "davar" which means "a matter", "milah" which means a spoken word, and "tevah" which means a written word.)

Jewish commentators have creatively mistranslated the word "teivah" in Genesis 6:16, that refers to Noah's "teivah" (ark), as "word", so that we can read this verse "put a light in the ark" as "make a light for the word."

Through this creative mistranslation, the command to Noah to make a light for the ark becomes a direction for prayer and study, to make a light to shine down into the written word, especially the written words of the prayer book.

As this skylight/radiant gemstone shines light down into the word, one discovers the inner life of the word. The great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) taught that this passage in Genesis refers to the spiritual dimension of liturgy, the words of the prayer book. In a long and detailed commentary to this passage, a profound teaching was constructed. This teaching, based on Genesis 6:16, came to be called "Amud Ha-Tefilah", "The Pillar of Prayer."

The Besht teaches ("Besht is an acronym for "Baal Shem Tov") that when one places the radiant light of consciousness into a word of the prayer book (or any sacred text, for that matter) one perceives "worlds, souls and divinity." The letters, the pronunciation of a word of the prayer book or the Bible, are a vessel that holds an inner depth.

We have all had this experience when we study literature or poetry. A line we read suddenly stops us, forces us to consider. A light goes on. We go inside - inside ourselves, and into the word.

Poetry and literature (and theater and cinema) do this: through the words we suddenly are able to see things as we have not seen them before. Meanings, awaiting in the soul, suddenly churn up from the depths.

This idea seems perhaps incredible to one who has not studied the liturgy as poetry, that these holy books comprise a series of openings into deep realms of the soul, even mystical realms. This idea, that the words of the prayer book are openings into great caverns of meaning, is not widely taught. Once one begins to apply this idea, however, inner realms are discovered when we illuminate them with the skylight, the radiant gemstone, of our own focused consciousness.

I have thought carefully about how to teach this inner path, and I realize that much preparatory work is required. I think that one must first have some experience in a contemplative practice so that one can reach deep within. Words can only achieve depth if we read them with our own depth. One must be able to traverse from the realms of the Higher Self down into the Archetypal Soul, and points in between. This practice is often called "hitbonenut", "contemplation." We have to be able to create that skylight of consciousness to illuminate the hidden chambers of holy words.

And we must take the time to enter into the holy books like a spelunker. It is dark in there, and the journey inward is tough, and maybe boring, but then you detect that the atmosphere has changed. You find yourself in this cavern, thick with souls, words and divinity.

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