Our connection with God expresses itself in different ways. When we study Torah and perform God’s commandments, we connect to His wisdom and will, respectively. The Torah is God’s wisdom, the commandments are a statement of His will. What both Torah and commandments have in common is that when we engage in either, we perceive God as, relatively speaking, being far removed from us. We learn and speak about Him, but not to Him. However, when we pray, by contrast, God is present, right in front of us. We turn to Him directly.
There are actually two stages in prayer: When praising God—the section of the morning prayers known as pesukei dezimrah—and when reciting the Shema prayer, which consists of a number of paragraphs of Torah, we speak about Him. But in the Amidah prayer (the Shmoneh Esrei), we turn directly to God, addressing Him in the second person—“You.
Addressing God in this direct manner is unique to the Amidah prayer. The blessings that we recite in this prayer, which were standardized by the rabbinic sages of the Second Temple period, are different than the other blessings that we recite during the rest of the day. Most blessings open with the second person, “Blessed are You” and then switch over to the third person – “Who has sanctified us with His mitzvot” or “Who brings bread out of the earth,” etc. In the Amidah prayer, by contrast, the blessing does not revert to the third person. The most common word in the Amidah prayer is “You”! The goal is to continue to speak with God in the second person, to feel that we are standing “before the Face of God” throughout the prayer.
Addressing God directly is not easy. It requires tremendous effort. It is no simple matter to actually feel God’s presence as we would feel the presence of another person. But if our prayer does not reach this stage and we do not address Him directly, then we have actually turned the other parts of our service of God into a type of escape from the intense meeting.
Let us go a little deeper. A little bit of contemplation will reveal that when we address God in the second person, “You”, we face two different and even opposite challenges.
Emerging from “Me”
On the one hand, when we pray the Amidah prayer, we are literally standing before God. Speaking to God requires us to feel His presence. This experience nullifies our existence—so much so, that in the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes the act of turning directly to God as requiring self-sacrifice! How so? Obviously, this is not referring to the self-sacrifice of our corporeal being.
In order to be able to address God as “You”, I have to emerge from my “me.” I must remove the thoughts and sensory experiences that distract my heart from focusing on God until my entire personality is drawn into Him. When we pray directly to God, we are not just sending Him a message, like dropping a letter in the mailbox. We are building a true real-time connection with Him. While praying in this manner, we can achieve a state in which there is nothing but Him occupying us. The Alter Rebbe explains that the phrase, “Go out and see” (צְאֶינָה וּרְאֶינָה) can be understood as shorthand for, “I go out of myself and see Nothingness” (צֵא אֲנִי וְרוֹאֶה אַיִן). To be open to ayin, (nothingness), to actually feel and see God’s presence, I first have to emerge from myself, from my “me.”
“You”: A Direct Conversation between Friends
On the other hand, addressing God directly places us in a position of equality with Him, so to speak. When we turn to an honorable person in the third person, “Would the Rabbi like to…” or the like, we express a sense of distance and honor with which we approach them. Approaching an honorable person with the second-person pronoun “you” may seem like borderline chutzpah, suggesting that we were relating to him as an equal.
When we study Torah and perform mitzvot, we feel the intrinsic gap separating us from God. We feel that God is above us, teaching and commanding us, and we learn Torah and fulfill His commandments. By contrast, standing before God and beseeching Him in prayer to bestow our wishes and needs upon us, requires honesty. Prayer is like a direct conversation between friends, in which we tell God how we are truly feeling.
The Rebbe of Kotzk expressed these two opposite inner states that we foster during prayer in his own prayers. He would pray as if he was speaking with a friend. He did not pray loudly, did not emphasize different syllables at length, did not draw out words or sentences, did not energetically sway back and forth, and did not attach a particular melody to his words. He would simply speak, conducting an honest and direct conversation. Does that sound easy? Try it and see how difficult it is. Accordingly, after his “simple” prayer, it would take him a long time to recognize the people around him. If God is your friend, the rest of reality can be quite blurred.
Addressing God as “You” is the apex of our connection with Him. It is the essence of our meeting with God’s actual presence in our lives. Due to the difficulty of this intensely powerful experience, it is limited to the Amidah prayer alone. The rest of the time, it is proper to relate to God in the third person.