Q&A: Foreign Thoughts in Prayer

The following are questions that Rabbi Ginsburgh took from the audience after his class on Images and Shadows.

Q&A: Foreign Thoughts

Q: The Alter Rebbe writes in the Tanya that ordinary people cannot elevate their character traits; that this is the work of tzaddikim. The Rebbe, however, says that some services of tzaddikim are relevant to us. What should we do in practice, in light of your teaching in this class that images are prayers?

A: We mentioned that during prayer, foreign, negative thoughts enter our minds. I am standing before God and thoughts attack me. They may even be Amalek-inspired thoughts raising doubts in faith. What am I supposed to do?

There are two ways to rectify and elevate thoughts:

When a tzaddik, perfectly consummate individual has a foreign thought during prayer, he is instructed to elevate that thought by transforming it. If he finds himself thinking of material pleasure, he contemplates it. He asks himself, Why should I have a passion for something material? He then elevates this desire by transforming it with his love for God. He directs the negative trait to God. This is the service of tzaddikim, as is written in the Tanya.

But, those who are not tzaddikim, those who are what the Tanya calls intermediates (beinonim), cannot elevate foreign thoughts in this manner. This is because the thought comes from their being, unlike the tzaddik, to whom foreign thoughts come from the outside. Therefore, in chapter 28 of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe says to simply ignore them. This is their rectification and thus, their elevation. When we reject a thought, we also rectify it and rectify our mind. Foreign thoughts are thus like shadows that penetrate our consciousness and they must be processed and clarified. The decision, which shadow to reject and which shadow need to be brightened up and turned into light, is up to the artist, who touches up his work of art.

 

Q: What about worries that enter our minds during prayer?

A: There are common worries, in which a person plans what he needs to do. For example, ‘What will I eat after prayers?’ No matter what the thought or feeling, I must find how I can use the worry to serve God. How do we serve God with worry? In every matter, service of God is finding something positive inside it. How would this apply to worry? Proverbs 28:14 says, “Happy is he who worries always.” This refers to fear. But what about worry? Proverbs 12:25 says “If there be anxiety in a man’s heart let him quash it.” The Hebrew verb for “quash” is yashchena. This is the way to deal with anxiety. The sages add that this can also mean to remove it from his thoughts (yaschena) or discuss it with someone else (yesichena).

Is there a source for positive anxiety? “Secrets of the Torah are given only to he whose heart worries inside him.” (Chagigah 13a). We call this type of worry, the “existential anxiety” of the Jew. This is one of the answers to the question, What is the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew? Jews worry. We have a lot to worry about. But the positive worry that is a prerequisite for giving someone the secrets of the Torah is the worry over why Mashiach has not yet come. What is the purpose of Creation? I have a mission in this world. When will I accomplish it? This is positive anxiety inside negative anxiety.

Rectifying Denial of God

What is the worst possible thought? What produces the most anxiety of all? Denial of God. In Hebrew, doubt (סָפֵק) equals Amalek (עֲמָלֵק). Is there an example of a case when to deny God is positive? Normally, I would not think so. But, Chassidut says that there is. Everything comes from God. When a poor person comes to ask for charity, I can say to him: “God made you poor.” Anyone who has visited India knows that this is the way they think there. It’s your karma. God made you poor and I am not allowed to change that. What does Rebbe Bunim of Pashischa say? He says that when this type of thought enters your mind, you must deny it. You have to say, I do not believe that God made you poor so that you will remain poor! He made you poor, but I will make you not-poor.

Which holiday is the holiday of the poor? Poorim! (This is one of our famous vorts). The greatest mitzvah of Purim, according to the Rambam in Laws of Megillah, is matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor.  Giving gifts to the poor increases our “pure joy” on Purim. We give not only to those who we know need it but, “whomever extends his hand, we give him.” Yom Kippur is called Yom Kippurim (יוֹם כִּפֻּרִים) in the Torah (Leviticus 23:28). This name can be understood to mean, “a day like Purim” (יוֹם כְּפּוּרִים). But, the root of Yom Kippur is כפר, which is also the root of “denial” (כְּפִירָה). Thus, Purim, even more than Yom Kippur, is the rectification of denial by means of it’hapcha, transformation – v’nahafoch hu.

Comments are closed.

Subscribe