It is one of the great dreams of the Bible. Jacob, afraid and alone, finds himself in what the anthropologist Victor Turner called liminal space - the space between - between the home he is escaping from and the destination he has not yet reached, between the known danger of his brother Esau from whom he is in flight, and the unknown danger of Laban from whom he will eventually suffer great wrongs.
As will happen again twenty-two years later on his return - in the wrestling match with the stranger - Jacob has his most intense experiences alone, at night, isolated and vulnerable, in the middle of a journey. In this, the first of his visions:
"He had a dream in which he saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it."
What does this signify? There are many interpretations given by the sages and commentators, but the simplest is that it has to do with the encounter between the human soul and G-d, the encounter later generations knew as prayer.
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely G-d is in this place, and I did not know it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven."
The synagogue is the house of G-d. Prayer is the gate of heaven. And when we have truly prayed, the most profound result is that we too are conscious of the feeling: "Surely G-d is in this place, and I did not know it."
Did this vision exercise any influence on the structure of Jewish prayer? I want to suggest that it did. Its influence was profound. If we examine Jewish prayer carefully, we will see that its shape precisely matches the idea of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend.
If we study the liturgy carefully we will find that it often has a symmetrical three-part structure, A-B-A, which has the following form: (a) ascent, (b) standing in the Presence, (c) descent. Here are some examples.
1. The morning service begins with (a) pesukei de-zimra, a series of Psalms, which constitute a preparation for prayer. It moves on to (b) prayer as such: the Shema, the three blessings that surround it, and the Amidah, the standing prayer. It ends with (c) a series of concluding prayers including Ashrei, itself a key element of pesukei de-zimra.
The basis of this threefold structure is a statement in the Talmud (Berakhot 32b) that "the early pious men used to wait for an hour before praying, then they would pray for an hour, and then they would wait for a further hour." The Talmud asks on what basis they did so. It answers by citing the verse Ashrei itself: "Happy are those who sit in Your house." Clearly this is what is known as an asmachta, a supporting verse, rather than the origin of the custom itself (this passage, though, is undoubtedly the reason that Ashrei is said in the first and third sections).
2. Another example is the structure of the Amidah. This has the following three-part pattern: (a) shevach, praise, the first three paragraphs; (b) bakashah, requests, the middle paragraphs, and (c) hodayah, 'thanks' or 'acknowledgements', the last three paragraphs. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, the middle section is replaced by usually one, on Rosh Hashanah three, paragraphs relating to 'the holiness of the day' on the grounds that we do not make requests on days of rest.
Shevach is a preparation. It is our entry to the divine presence. Hodayah is a leave-taking. We thank G-d for the goodness with which He has favoured us. Bakashah, the central section, is standing in the presence itself. We are like supplicants standing before the King, presenting our requests. The spiritual form of the first and last actions - entry and leave-taking - are dramatized by taking three steps forward, and at the end, three steps back. This is the choreography of ascent and descent.
3. The kedushah - verses taken from the mystical visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel - is said three times in the morning service (on Shabbat, the third is transferred to the afternoon service, because the morning service is more than usually long. However, its proper place is in the morning service). The first, known as kedushat yotser, occurs in the blessings before the Shema; the third, kedushah de-sidra, is in the concluding section of the prayers, beginning Uva le-Tzion. The middle kedushah is in the reader's repetition of the Amidah.
The kedushah makes explicit reference to angels. Its key verses are the words Isaiah and Ezekiel heard the angels saying as they surround the Throne of Glory. We speak of the angels at this point: the Serafim, Cherubim, Ofanim and holy Chayot.
There are obvious differences between the first and last, on the one hand, and the second on the other. The first and third do not need a minyan. They can be said privately. They do not need to be said standing. The second requires a minyan and must be said standing.
Maimonides explains the difference. In the first and third, we are describing what the angels do when they praise G-d. In the second, we are enacting what they do. The first and third are preparation for, and reflection on, an event. The second is the event itself, as we re-live it.
There are other examples, but these will suffice.
The daily prayers, as we now have them, evolved over a long period of time. The sages tell us that the first architects were the men of the Great Assembly in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the 5th century BCE. There was a further intensive process of composition and canonization in the days of Rabban Gamliel at Yavneh. Shaping and reshaping continued until the first siddurim, those of Rav Amram Gaon and Rav Saadiah Gaon in the ninth and tenth centuries CE.
What we see from the above examples is that there is a basic shape - a depth grammar - of prayer. It consists of ascent - standing in the Presence - descent. The inspiration for this cannot have been any other than Jacob's vision.
Prayer is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. On this ladder of words, thoughts and emotions, we gradually leave earth's gravitational field. We move from the world around us, perceived by the senses, to an awareness of that which lies beyond the world - the earth's Creator.
At the end of this ascent, we stand, as it were, directly in the conscious presence of G-d - which Maimonides defines as the essential element of kavannah, the intentional state essential to prayer.
We then slowly make our way back to earth again - to our mundane concerns, the arena of actions and interactions within which we live. But if prayer has worked, we are not the same afterward as we were before. For we have seen, as Jacob saw, that "Surely G-d is in this place, and I did not know it."
If the first stage is the climb, and the second standing in heaven, then the third is bringing a fragment of heaven down to earth. For what Jacob realized when he woke from his vision is that G-d is in this place. Heaven is not somewhere else, but here - even if we are alone and afraid - if only we realized it. And we can become angels, G-d's agents and emissaries, if, like Jacob, we have the ability to pray and the strength to dream.
Prayers from the past and present can shape our world of the future
Credo – January 2006
A classic Jewish story: a learned rabbi and a taxi driver depart this world at the same time and arrive together at the gates of heaven. The angel at the gate signals to the taxi driver to enter, then turns to the rabbi and sadly shakes his head. What is this?" asks the rabbi. "I am a learned rabbi and he is only a taxi driver who, not to put too fine a point on it, drove like a lunatic." "Exactly so," replies the angel. "When you spoke, people slept. But when they got into his taxi, believe me, they prayed!"
That's a way of reminding us that prayer isn't always predictable. We never know in advance when we will feel the need to turn to G-d. Why then the discipline of daily prayer?
Preparing a new edition of the Jewish prayer book has made me yet more vividly aware of how powerful prayer really is. It is, said the eleventh century poet Judah Halevi, to the soul what food is to the body. Starve a body of food and it dies. Starve a soul of prayer and it atrophies and withers. And sometimes prayer is all the more powerful for being said in words not our own, words that come to us from our people's past, hallowed by time, resonant with the tears and hopes of earlier generations, words that gave them strength and which they handed on to us to use and cherish.
I remember visiting Auschwitz, walking through the gates with their chilling inscription, "Work makes you free", and feeling the chill winds of hell. It was a numbing experience. There were no words you could say. It was not until I entered one of the blocks where there was nothing but an old recording of the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead, that I broke down and cried. It was then that I realised that prayer makes grief articulate. It gives us the words when there are no words. It gives sacred space to the tears that otherwise would have nowhere to go.
I think back to my father, a Jew of simple faith. In his eighties he had to go through five difficult operations, each of which made him progressively weaker. The most important things he took with him to hospital were his tefillin (the leather boxes with straps worn by Jewish men during weekday morning prayer), his prayer book and a book of Psalms. I used to watch him reciting Psalms and see him growing stronger as he did so. He was safe in the arms of G-d: that was all he knew and all he needed to know. It was only when he said to us, his sons, "Pray for me", that we knew the end was near. For him, prayer was life, and life a form of prayer.
Prayer changes the world because it changes us. It opens our eyes to the sheer wonder of existence. Is there anything in the scientific literature to match Psalm 104 as a hymn of praise to the ordered complexity of the universe? There is something in the human spirit that, however intricately it understands the laws of physics and biochemistry, wants not merely to explain but also to celebrate; not just to understand but also to sing.
Prayer teaches us to thank, to rejoice in what we have rather than be eternally driven by what we don't yet have. Prayer is an ongoing seminar in what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence. It sensitizes us to the world beyond the self: the real world, not the one defined by our devices and desires.
Daily prayer works on us in ways not immediately apparent. As the sea smooths the stone, as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer - repeated, cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself - gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art, aligning it with the moral energies of the universe.
Prayer is not magic. It does not bend the world to our will; if anything it does the opposite. It helps us notice the things we otherwise take for granted. It redeems our solitude. It gives us a language of aspiration, a vocabulary of ideals. And seeing things differently, we begin to act differently. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.