The mystics of Safed taught that we should not begin our prayers without first adopting the proper intention. As it’s articulated in the Kol Haneshamah siddur, that intention goes like this:
For the sake of the union of The Blessed Holy One with The Shechinah, I stand here, ready to take upon myself the Mitzvah, “You shall love your fellow human being as yourself,” and by this merit may I open my mouth.
This is a remarkable idea in several ways. First of all, there’s the word merit (זכות, z’chut, in Hebrew). With that word, we are told that opening one’s mouth—to pray, to speak—is not a light thing to be taken for granted. It’s something we need to earn. And we earn that privilege only by getting beyond ourselves, only through an intention towards care and justice.
Also remarkable: This merit is not optional. Traditionally, we can’t truly begin the day without prayer. Adding this wisdom from our mystic ancestors, we can’t even begin the thing that begins the day until we first acknowledge our responsibility to others. Our days can only emerge from a concern for others.
Finally, we are meant to root that responsibility in feeling—in love. This is remarkable, too. As a religion, Judaism tends to talk about what we should do, rather than what should be going on inside us. But the mystics understood that those good actions are more likely to flourish if we cultivate the right inner state. And here they’re telling us that our prayers—our petitions, our praise, our articulation of what is right and good, our first statements and actions of the day—should be rooted in love. Love, presumably, across difference; love of the other.
Surprising or not, none of this is optional; it’s what we, as Jews, are supposed to do. And we’re supposed to get started on it first thing.
David Ebenbach is the author of of The Artist’s Torah, and he teaches at Georgetown University.