What Does Your Heart Say? A Hasidic Interpretation of Prayer

The concluding chapter of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is titled, “The Heart Is the Last Frontier.” In it, Wilkerson tells the story of a plumber who comes to her house after she found water in her basement. The plumber is a white man, Wilkerson is a Black woman. At first, the plumber is visibly reluctant to engage her or even to recognize the fact that she indeed owns her house. He is not helpful, forcing Wilkerson to move boxes around on her own. He is dismissive, not listening to her suggestions about where the problem might be coming from. Finally, the plumber says he can’t fix the problem and that Wilkerson should simply buy a new sump pump. His heart, it seems, is hard. Wilkerson describes herself as “steaming.”

“Since he wasn’t helping,” she writes, “I felt I had nothing to lose. Something came over me, and I threw a Hail Mary at his humanity.” Wilkerson mentions that her mother had died the week before and asks, “Is your mother still alive?” This breaks the ice and, it seems, pierces the armor of his heart. The plumber and Wilkerson connect over their shared grief. They begin to tell stories to one another about loved ones they’ve lost. The plumber becomes engaged and energetic, and solves the problem quickly (it was the water heater). He even winds up coming back after he leaves, realizing that he should turn off the water heater, which was empty.

“How different things had been just minutes before,” writes Wilkerson. “‘My mother must’ve been talking to your mother,’ I said, ‘and telling her to get her boy to help her girl down there. ‘My daughter needs your son’s help.’”[1]

The story is a poignant conclusion to Wilkerson’s historical reflection on systems of caste in India, Nazi Germany and the United States. With it, Wilkerson reminds us that such systems rely upon and reinforce the idea that we do not share a common humanity — that some people are considered less human, less images of the Divine, less worthy of love and respect than others. Through the title of the chapter, Wilkerson reminds us that systems of separation and oppression are fundamentally built, maintained, overcome and dismantled through the work of the heart — the part of us that is ultimately unknowable by others and only available to us and to the Divine whose spark lives within it.

Our words — in day-to-day interactions with plumbers and in legal documents like the Nuremberg Laws — convey our hearts: their encasement in a shell of fear, their openness to connection and trust. With this closing story, Wilkerson challenges us: Can we practice a language, in both our interpersonal relations and in our laws and policies, that is grounded in and helps to amplify our capacity for loving, compassionate hearts?

Putting Our Hearts Into Our Words

This brings us to a beautiful teaching of the Maggid of Mezritch on a mysterious verse from Parashat Nitzavim: “Hidden things belong to YHVH our God; but with revealed things, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching” (Deuteronomy 29:28).Classical commentators generally understood this to refer to God’s capacity to punish those who secretly — in their hearts — worship false gods. Here, for instance, is Rashi:

I do not threaten to punish you because of secret thoughts, for these belong to YHVH our God, who will exact punishment from that individual; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children that we may put away the evil from our midst; and if we do not execute judgment upon them, the whole community will be punished.

In this reading, the verse is a reminder that, no matter what we may say or do externally, God knows what is in our hearts, so we should be careful what we allow to take root in them.

The Maggid offers us a very different reading. (The selection below has been edited slightly for ease of reading.)

Torat HaMaggid Nitzavim

Certainly, when we pray or study Torah with purpose and intensity … and all our intention is directed to Heaven, that we may lift up our prayers and our study to their primordial source, then without a doubt our words become connected above. Moreover, we know this is so since every word and every letter contains the 600,000 letters of the Torah, which correspond to the 600,000 souls of the people Israel. Therefore, when our intentions are welcomed in the supernal realms, and our devotions are performed on behalf of all Israel who are the root of the 600,000 letters, we can perform these unifications and pairings. … Thus, when we study with our intention directed in this manner, even if we do not study the whole Torah as one totality, nevertheless we can awaken and connect all of the worlds. And from there we can also create worlds, as explained in the Zohar. For all 600,000 letters contain one another. Thus, however much we study, a small or large amount, our study will encompass the entire Torah and all the souls of Israel …

Now we can return to our verse: “Hidden things belong to YHVH our God; but with revealed things, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.” The hidden things refer to awe and love, which correspond to the sefirot hokhmah and binah, which likewise correspond to the letters yod-heh of the Divine Name YHVH. When we study and pray with purpose and intensity — which are, themselves, these hidden dimensions — we do something very great: We connect and bind our words, which are a manifestation of the recognizable, this-worldly aspect of the Divine (corresponding to the name Elohim), [to the higher, more concealed aspects of the Divine, which correspond to YHVH]. For in every word is garbed the name YHVH, the source of all things and the ultimate ground of all reality. Thus we are able to connect and unify all the upper worlds. This is not the case with that which is “revealed,” which is the nature of voice and speech. These are manifest to everyone when we speak and make our voices heard. But love and awe dwell in our hearts — thus they are called hidden, for they are not discernable to others.

There are two parts to the Maggid’s teaching. In the first paragraph, he offers us a beautiful image: No matter how much or how little we study or pray, if we do it with genuine purpose and intensity — if our hearts are truly in it — then we may experience an expansive and profound sense of unification between body, mind and spirit, and between ourselves and all of creation through space and time. Even a single letter of the Torah, a single word of Jewish prayer, when uttered with genuine focus and attention, contains everything: the entirety of Torah, the entirety of the Jewish people. It may happen that we may be distracted by feelings of inadequacy, self-judgment, pride or fear that may arise in us when we are praying or studying. But, says the Maggid, if we can manage to not be governed by those feelings, and instead attune our hearts to the invitation from the Divine that beckons to us from within them — then that’s everything. One word recited with genuine attention and intention, with genuine focus and purpose, with an awakened and directed heart, has the power of all the words of Torah and all the souls of the Jewish people combined.

No matter how much or how little we study or pray, if we do it with genuine purpose and intensity — if our hearts are truly in it — then we may experience an expansive and profound sense of unification between body, mind and spirit, and between ourselves and all of creation through space and time.

In the second paragraph, the Maggid connects this spiritual insight to the verse from Nitzavim. In doing so, he offers a dramatic contrast to the classical depiction of God as omniscient watcher over our inner lives. Yes, our hearts are our most intimate zones, ultimately unknowable by others. Yes, we are capable of being less than genuine with our words — saying one thing externally while telling ourselves something very different inside. The classical commentators understand the verse to focus on Divine punishment for improper belief. But the Maggid invites us instead to consider, in a positive way, the power of aligning our words with our hearts — our external expressions with our internal meanings. It isn’t only that we tap into that network of 600,000 letters and souls that he described earlier. His point is that, when we pray and study with genuinely directed hearts, we unify the upper and lower worlds, the inner and outer; we bring together YHVH and Elohim, forming a conduit for the Divine flow through the cosmos and through ourselves. If we can really put our hearts into our words — if we can direct our words so they really express our hearts — that is nothing short of an act of cosmic significance.

Expressing the Stirrings of Our Hearts

I’m not a Hasidic master, and I cannot claim to have achieved the quality of experience the Maggid describes. Yet I draw inspiration from it, particularly concerning my own practice of prayer. To me, as for the Maggid, tefillah is not only an opportunity for expression, it is also a duty prescribed by halakhah. I live my life with a felt sense of obligation to recite the prayers of the traditional liturgy at their prescribed times. Yet by experiencing tefillah as an obligation in this way, I run into the challenge that when I recite the prayers at the right time, my intention may well be more focused on discharging my sense of duty than on attuning my heart to the Divine voice within. This is not an uncommon problem — not only for people who share my halakhic orientation, but also for people who have been educated and acculturated to perform prayers by rote. In both cases, it’s often hard to say our hearts are in it.

How might the Maggid’s teaching help us? In my own practice, I find that the most essential thing is simply slowing down and exercising a dose of self-compassion, enacting the maxim, “Do less, better.” In this context, that might mean, first, giving myself permission that I don’t need to recite every word in the siddur or read every line of the Torah or the Talmud or the rest of the library of Jewish texts. As the Maggid says, even one word recited with genuine intention and purpose contains within it the entire Torah and the entire Jewish people (or, in the words of the Shulhan Arukh: “Better few supplications with intention than many without intention”[2]).

I find that mindfulness meditation can be a useful aid, helping me cultivate a quiet space in my mind-heart, where I can be attentive to what is stirring within. Ten to 20 minutes of meditation is often a good amount of time to prepare myself for prayer. But even when I choose, for whatever reason, not to give myself that much time, even just a few minutes of focused, quiet attention can make a world of difference.

Once I sense I’ve reached a more settled, calmer mind, I begin to recite a part of the liturgy or a passage of Torah or other sacred text. In the case of prayer, the part I choose to recite is determined by the prayers traditionally prescribed for the particular time of day and what the halakhah has to say about which of those are most central; in the case of study, the text might be suggested by the weekly Torah reading cycle, but might also come to me another way, through a commitment to study as regular practice.

In some cases — particularly, in prayer — these are familiar words with which I have a long and intimate relationship. Yet whether or not they are familiar, these texts are sacred; they are letters and words that have created and continue to create worlds. (It is here that I differ from Mary Oliver, who suggests “it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones” to which we pay attention.[3] While attention is necessary, in the case of Jewish spiritual practice it is insufficient.) Thus, as I return my attention to my breath as an anchor, ultimately I seek to bring my heart-mind to the words I’m reciting, to the Divine presence that these words can aid me in perceiving. I try to keep my heart open to sense the meaning the prayer stirs within me. As I articulate a word or words, I try to attune my heart-mind to that meaning, and thereby experience the alignment of inner and outer, upper and lower, YHVH and Elohim, that the Maggid describes. The meaning is not fixed; it is unique to that prayer or study encounter, even if the shape of it is similar. That, I think, is as it should be, providing both a stable structure of discipline, practice, and language, and, not in spite of, but through that structure, facilitating freshness and renewal.

Renewing Old Structures and Unblocking the Divine Flow

There is, then, a lesson here about structure — and that brings us back to Wilkerson and her examination of caste. A caste system is a structure of language and practice that aims to keep people separated and in their place. It tries to fly in the face of our innate awareness that we are, in fact, interconnected, equally imbued with the spark of the Divine simply by virtue of being human, capable of renewal and change. As Wilkerson shows, caste systems go to extraordinary lengths to try and change the way we think, perceive the world, comport our bodies and experience the Divine. And they often do so through a reading of sacred texts that does not serve our inner life, but instead, seeks to stultify, oppress and shut it up.

It is not an accident that the final chapter of Wilkerson’s book is called “The Heart Is the Final Frontier,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that Wilkerson’s interlocutor in that chapter is a plumber. The interaction she has with him, at first, is characterized by blockage and resistance. Something is stopped up. Language doesn’t flow between them, and their relationship falls into the traps of disconnection, fear, anger, resentment — not unlike the relationship too many Jews have developed with the words of the siddur or the Torah.

But then the relationship gets unclogged when Wilkerson’s words open up the plumber’s heart. He had a desire for loving connection in there all along, but it was blocked. In Wilkerson’s question, “Is your mother still alive?” the plumber experiences a genuine expression of care which opens a connection, leads to more language and more connection, and ultimately yields a small, yet perhaps still cosmically significant, act of redemption.

As in the time of the Maggid, for so many people today the words of Jewish prayer and study can feel like dead letters or stale language. Too many people, tragically, experience Jewish prayers and texts as, at best, something to put up with and, at worst, something stultifying and even oppressive. They — we — don’t experience our encounter with the siddur and the Torah as opening up channels through which the Divine presence flows. The approach to Torah my colleagues and I teach at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality is meant to help us experience these texts as aids in cultivating a deeper inner life that helps us open up to a far richer relationship with ourselves, the Divine, the cosmos. To that I will add, in the spirit of both Wilkerson and the Maggid: Redemption will only come when our hearts are opened. So let’s keep opening them up.

This essay is adapted from Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022).

[1] Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Random House (2020), pp. 374-375.

[2] Orakh Hayim 1:4

[3] Mary Oliver, “Praying.” Thirst. Beacon Press, 2007.

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