Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Pure and Simple Intentions

“What you wish to attain,” explained Rabbi Menachem Mendel, “is a very high state of perfection which only a few individuals in each generation merit attaining: you wish to learn all of the secrets of Kabbala, and then to pray like an innocent child.”


Rabbi Aryeh Hendler

1. Rabbi Hirsch and the Flaming Letters
2. The Simple and the Complex
3. Through the Heart

Rabbi Hirsch and the Flaming Letters
Hassidic Jews relate that Rabbi Hirsch, known as the "Servant of Rimonov", once complained before his teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimonov, that while praying, flaming letters and words would descend from and appear before his eyes. Surprised, Rabbi Menachem Mendel commented, "These are the letters and words of the mystical intentions ("Kavanot") of our beloved mentor the Holy Ari - How can you possibly complain about such good fortune?"

To this Rabbi Hirsch replied, "But I desire no more than to pray according to the simple meaning of the words as they appear in the prayer book."

"What you wish to attain," explained Rabbi Menachem Mendel, "is actually a very high state of perfection which only a few individuals in each generation merit attaining: you wish to learn all of the secrets of Kabbala, and then to pray like an innocent child."

The Simple and the Complex
This story serves as a powerful illustration of how Hassidism approaches the tension which exists between the simple and the complex. Rabbi Hirsch sees letters and words of fire while praying. The letters, and the words which they form, are in fact vessels. They are vessels via which the petitioner expresses his abstract thoughts. This fact is what gives the letters and words such tremendous force: in their form, pronunciation, and arrangement, they reflect the profound feelings experienced by the soul of the petitioner while praying. These are the means by virtue of which man gives expression to his ideas. This is the reason that such a sizable chapter in the history of Jewish thought has been dedicated to the significance of the letters.

While Rabbi Hirsch of Rimonov prays, letters and words of fire appear before him. These forms call to memory the Torah that was given at Mount Sinai. Regarding this scroll we are told that its parchment consisted of white fire and its letters were written in black fire. In Kabbalistic teachings, the letters and words of Jewish prayer took on mystical significance. The Book of Zohar refers to these Hebrew letters as chariots and horses of fire. Letters aid man and allow him to express himself and to attain a level that he otherwise would be unable to reach.

Because of the great significance which has been accorded these letters in Kabbalistic thought, scores of Mystics have occupied themselves with intricate letter and word combinations in an attempt to effect changes in the world through spiritual channels. When Rabbi Hirsch stands in prayer, letters and words appear before him revealing deep and hidden concepts, like letters and words of fire - they are the letters and words which represent the deep mystical intentions which the Holy Ari attributed to the words of the prayer.

Through the Heart
Yet, it turns out that Rabbi Hirsch does not desire any of this. He would rather pray like an innocent child, according to the plain meaning of the words in the prayer book. The discussion between Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Menachem Mendel in fact reflects an existing halakhic deliberation which centers on the question: Which is the most desirable manner of focusing one’s thoughts during the daily "Amida" prayer? The "Shulchan Arukh" writes that the supplicant must direct his heart to the unadorned meaning of those words which he utters. On this note, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, the "Mishnah Berurah" comments, "One should not focus his thoughts on the Divine names and unifications; rather, a person should simply pray according to the plain meaning of the liturgy and interpret the words according to the guidance of his heart unless he is versed in the ‘secret of God’ and knows how to focus upon it in his heart, lovingly and compassionately....and it is said of Rabbi S. of Kinon, "HaRash," that he claimed that after he had learned the secrets of the Kabbala he prayed like a new born baby."

There are those who are versed in the secrets of God and therefore know how to focus their thoughts upon the Divine names and unifications. On the other hand, there are others who, though versed in the secrets of God and learned in Kabbala, pray like "a new born baby." It was this level which Rabbi Hirsch wished to reach. This aspiration, though, gives rise to a certain conflict between Kabbala and Hassidism. Kabbala speaks profusely regarding the technique necessary for the employment of the Divine names, unifications, letter arrangements, etc., for the purpose of attaining the yearned-for revelation experience: to approach and cling to God. Hassidic philosophy speaks of reaching God "through the heart." It tells of instantaneous awareness, that which "recognizes the immediately present," that which comes close to God from within the individual himself, via his own vital inner world, through a clear and simple vista of existence.

Rabbi Hirsch of Rimonov is not interested in complex arrangements of letters; he would like nothing more than to pray like a child, for a child interacts with that which surrounds him, to those which are in his proximity, simply and naturally. Rabbi Hirsch longs for simplicity - not the kind of spiritual sophistication which finds expression in methods for putting together letters and words. The last sentence of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimonov is worth noting: "What you wish to attain is a very high state of perfection which only a few individuals in each generation merit attaining: you wish to learn all of the secrets of Kabbala, and then to pray like an innocent child."

This statement calls to mind what we quoted above from the Mishnah Berurah. "HaRash Mikinon" learned the entire sea of Kabbala, and in the end he did pray like a child. This underscores the fact that the desire to pray like a child is not the outgrowth of intellectual shallowness or a disregard for the profound Kabbalistic teachings. After one reaches complete perfection in one’s attainment of Kabbalistic wisdom, one returns to a natural, childlike simplicity.

This principle is well pronounced in Hassidic thought in connection with the sages’ interpretation of the verse, "God saves man and animal" (Psalms 36:7). On this verse, the sages teach: "The reference here is to the kind of people who possess plain, unadorned knowledge and who regard themselves as no more than an animal." The sages, then, emphasize the fact that simplicity is not an expression of intellectual inability. Innocent simplicity arrives after a person reaches the level of "unadorned knowledge" and sees himself as no more than an animal, because of a longing for simple and innocent attachment to the Almighty.

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