The Three Rungs of Prayer

A Chassidic ascent based on a teaching of Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz

by Rabbi David Ebner

It is the winter of 1941, but even the bitterness of the harsh Polish winter is dwarfed by the cold, hard vise of the Nazi conquerors which is pressing ever tighter on the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped in the inhuman conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Perhaps only in our direst moments are we able to approach the depths of prayer, that sense of radical need and urgency, which marked their every prayer.  Stripped of barest necessities and denied all hope, they could turn only to the Source of all.  Imagination dims in its attempt to hear the heart-cry for health and food; for children and redemption; for life itself.  Surely, their everyday prayer bore the strength of our N’eilah prayers.

And yet, it is precisely in this Kingdom of Hell that Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, urges his chassidim to pray not for themselves and their suffering but, rather, for God Himself and His suffering.  He, too, is caged in the Ghetto.  He, too, needs redemption.1

We, who merely read this speech, stand silent and dumbfounded before the implication of this astounding demand.  Decades later, we ask ourselves whether the suffering has become so unbearable that all rational categories are in mad retreat.  Prayer to God that He save Himself!  Can any human being ignore his reality, forget his overwhelming situation and engage in a prayer for God’s sake?  And what might such a prayer mean?

The Maharal of Prague writes:

“[The function of] prayer is to effect the completion of man in that which he is lacking.  Then, God hears his prayer and petition…”2

Fundamentally, prayer is Man’s expression of his total dependency on God.  It is his admission that without Divine succor he has neither wisdom nor sustenance; neither health nor redemption.  Absent this awareness of incompleteness and dependency, prayer is a sham, a ritual of mechanical mumbling that must be meaningless.3

Thus, the first and most basic rung of prayer is essentially concerned with the entire panoply of creature needs and desires.  To discount the significance of prayer simply because it is focused on the mundane and banal deficiencies of a this-worldly-centered individual, is to ignore the first rung of prayer’s ladder.  And no ladder, certainly no spiritual ladder, can be climbed by skipping rungs.4

In a moving passage, the Talmud teaches that Chana’s paradigmatic prayer for a child must be understood as the cry of a pauper who barges into the king’s banquet and begs for but a morsel of food.5  True, there is a radical audacity in this demanding stance, this high-handed breach of etiquette.  But it is also true that the pauper is assenting to the power of the king upon whom all is dependent.  The emptiness of Chana’s womb gnawed at her no less than the growling of his stomach.  She pleaded with God:  “Is it too much for He who is Master of myriad upon myriad of hosts of unnumbered worlds, to grant me but one child?”

Climbing to the second rung, we will pray for the same things, but with a significantly different attitude.  The premise underlying this level is to be found in Rambam’s majestic and inspiring description of our ideal relation to everyday life in which we struggle to earn our bread, to gain shelter and to support others.  He argues that these activities should be seen as a graded series in which each begins as an end but, when realized, is transmuted into a means to a higher level.  The ultimate end of all the give and take, of all the gaining and getting of life, must be directed to one purpose: the knowledge, service and imitation of God.6

Basically, this program of life activity erases the category of the secular or profane.  Nothing stands outside the domain of the holy; all can be imbued with sanctity.  The world is composed of the holy and the not yet holy.

The only difference between actions is the degree of definitiveness, of specificity, attached to them.  In observing Shabbat or donating charity, it is crystal clear that a concrete act of holiness is being performed.  However, when one eats, sleeps or engages in business, this clarity is missing.  Yet, if one eats, sleeps or engages in business, in order to have the strength and capacity to do that which is good and just — then these very acts are sanctified.  While all man’s actions are in the King’s palace7 and should be guided by this awareness, some are less patently so than others.8

The motif of all of life as knowledge of God in all actions, as the step-stool of holiness, forms one of the most powerful and dominant master-themes of the Chassidic world-view.  Listen to its expression in the words of Rav Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl:

“My master constantly referred to this as the profane treated in the purity of holiness.  For even in that which appears as profane…there is to be found Torah…  Everything, even the smallest creature, has some bond with the Torah.”9

It is told of Rav Naftali of Ropshitz that he stopped speaking in his old age.  His silence was particularly remarkable because he was renowned as a public speaker and so famous for his humor that he often served as a badchan (jester) at wedding celebrations.  Since the doctors could find no physical explanation for his muteness, his son once implored him to break his silence and explain himself.  Acceding to his plea, he said:

“Since I reached maturity, I have never spoken any words without the [underlying intent of] Divine unification.  Now I am grown old and my mind has weakened.  I thought it better to remain silent than to speak without unifications.”10

Thus, this world view urges man to pray for that which he needs, not simply because he is in need and God is the source of fulfillment.  Rather, Man should pray for his needs because they can be transformed; nay, should be transformed, into the service and praise of God.

Before prayer we give voice to the concept that without God’s help we would be unable to speak before Him; that having taken our three steps into the palace we would be struck dumb in expressing our needs.  But as we pray for the power of speech — “Lord, open my lips” — to enable our long petition of needs, we assert that our true speech-need is — “my mouth may declare Your praise,” i.e., our subsequent quest for the sating and granting of creature needs does not vitiate our intention of uttering praise.  That which we ask for is that which we will turn to use in His service and thereby proclaim the Divine in the world.  As Rav Naftali seemed to be saying idle words, but was, in fact, engaged in the unification of worlds to Divine service — so, too, do we ask for the simple things of life, but intend them for sacred service.

It is in this vein that Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev interprets the addition in the prayer during the Ten Days of Repentance:  “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake.”  We should pray for a life lived for the sake of God and for His grace, that it may be turned toward His service.11

So, too, Rav Naftali of Ropshitz emphasizes the last words of the prayer:12  “See our affliction, engage in our struggle, and redeem us in complete redemption for the sake of Your name.”  Our prayers for the sake of His name are actualized not in the mere receipt of God’s gift, but in the bending of that beneficence to His service — intelligence for the study of Torah; wealth in aid of those less fortunate; life itself for the glorification of His name.

The world is composed of the holy and the not yet holy.

The Rebbe of Alexander, Rav Chanoch Henoch, taught that the exile of Egypt began when the Jews forgot that they were in exile.  Forgetting and darkness represent a transposition of letters in Hebrew.  When we forget why and for what we are living, we enter a realm of darkness in which we hide from God and ourselves.  It is the world in which “things” have been reified as the meaning of life, not as means to life.

Rav Naftali once was strolling at night in the deserted warehouse area of town when he met someone else.  Puzzled by his presence, Rav Naftali asked him why he was there.

“Why, Rebbe, it is my job. I work for the warehouse owners as a guard,” he replied.  Accepting the man’s answer, he was about to continue his walk when the man asked him in return:

“Tell me, Rebbe, for whom do you work?”

Rav Naftali was so struck by the question that he stood transfixed and then offered the man a job.

“What would I do for you?” asked the watchman.

Rav Naftali replied, “Why, you would just keep asking me that very question.”

Chana prayed for a child from the pain of her barrenness.  But the purpose of her prayer was realized, not at his birth, but on the day she dedicated him to the service of God in Shiloh.

And yet one more rung…

Beyond the recognition of dependency and need; beyond the intent of dedication of fulfilled prayer to the service of God, stands the prayer for God on behalf of God.  For God partakes in man’s suffering;13 He experiences the anguish and bitterness of the exile along with His people.  The disgrace of His glory pains me in prayer.  It is the diminution of His Kingdom that is my suffering.

Rav Naftali taught that in the exile of Egypt, the Jews cried out:  “We can bear the work; we can endure the backbreaking labor and cruelty to which we are subjected daily.  But we cannot bear the desecration of Your honor and Your suffering along with us.”

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once prayed, “O God, I can’t bear the thought that the tefillin You wear are not kosher,14 for the scroll they contain states, ‘Who is like Your people Israel,’ and look at our condition.  So, I pray that You redeem us for the sake of Your tefillin.”

When Jews pray at this rung, teaches Rav Naftali, when our only concern is for God’s sake — that the glory of His Kingdom not be obscured and silent, then God responds in an act of measure for measure and grants us full redemption.  “I am to my beloved and my beloved is unto me.”15  As I am to my beloved, so is He unto me.

The holy fire of prayer which the Piaseczner Rebbe sought to awaken that Shabbat in the cold of the Warsaw Ghetto was lit from Rav Naftali’s flame.  It is rooted in his hearing the cry that arose in the first Jewish exile.  In whatever Egypt (Mitzrayim) a Jew finds himself, his calling out from the narrow straits (metzar) is always for the realization of God’s glory.

Master of the Universe, please grant me:

the audacity to demand my needs of You,

the wisdom to return Your answer unto You,

the courage to utter my prayer for You.

Rabbi Ebner lives in Jerusalem and teaches at Yeshivat HaMivtar—Orot Lev of Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat.

Rav Naftali of Ropshitz (1760-1827) was one of the most colorful of Chassidic masters, as well as one of the most enigmatic.  Born into a Mitnaggdic family on the day the Baal Shem Tov died, he was attracted to the Chassidic movement by the personalities and teachings of the Maggid of Mezeritch’s disciples.  The teaching on which the essay is based is found in Vol. 2 of his writings, Zera Kodesh, (Jerusalem, 1971) p. 16b as part of his commentary to the Haggadah.  Commenting on the verse quoted in the Haggadah, “And we cried unto God,” he argues that “the essence of our cry was only for God’s sake…‘Their cry went up to God from the work’ means they elevated their cry to a higher level…they were concerned with God’s sake far beyond…their work (min ha’avodah) for the Egyptians… ‘God saw our affliction’ is based on the principle of ‘I am to my beloved and my beloved is unto me.’”  This translation of part of the teaching illustrates the density of thought found in many Chassidic teachings.  A full translation of the text and further commentary can be found at


  1. Aish Kodesh, p. 83. The Rebbe’s impassioned speeches collected in this work were delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto and the manuscript was buried in the rubble of the Ghetto along with a letter, begging their finder to send them to his brother in Israel.  One of the greatest educators of our century, he died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Nazis a short time after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
  2. Netivot Olam, Netiv HaAvodah, ch.2.
  3. The difficulty of prayer for a generation that has experienced little deprivation and lacks nothing materially is well-known to every Jewish educator. It reminds us of Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin’s comment that he pitied the rich man who had no needs and, therefore, would not pray, or the Sochachover’s explanation that the primordial snake was punished in that the ubiquitous character of dust meant that it would never lack food and, therefore, would never have to pray,: and not to know prayer is the greatest of all curses.
  4. Commentary of Rav Elijah Gaon of Vilna on Proverbs 4:12.
  5. Brachot, 31b.
  6. Mishneh Torah, Deot, Ch. 3:2, 3. See also Guide for the Perplexed III:54.
  7. Note the first gloss of Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Shulchan Aruch.
  8. Rav Yitzchak Hutner develops this theme in Pachad Yitzchak: Purim, #10.  See, also, his letter on secular studies in Pachad Yitzchak: Igrot U’Ketavim, p. 184.
  9. Meor Enayim, Parashat Beshalach.
  10. Ohel Naftali, #89.
  11. Kedushat Levi, Rosh Hashanah, s.v. b’ofen acher.
  12. Zera Kodesh, p.98b.
  13. Isaiah 63:9.
  14. See Berachot, 6a concerning God’s tefillin.
  15. Song of Songs 6:3.
This article was featured in the Spring 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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