The morning prayer service is designed to bring out the natural love of a Jew for G-d, and the desire to do only His will, even in abnegation of one’s own self-oriented desires. This feeling is augmented by a period, however brief or prolonged, of Torah study immediately after prayer.
Although one must go about one’s business after prayer, and sometimes one’s daily affairs seem to cover over and bury that reservoir of spirituality developed in the morning, one can still tap into that reservoir by means of the mitzvos one observes throughout the day. These serve as wellsprings that bring the underground “water” to the surface.
ONE OF the things we learn in this week’s Torah reading is that our forefather Isaac dug a number of wells in order to get water from the ground. Part of the description of this is the verse (Genesis 26:19), “And the servants of Isaac dug in the valley and they found there a well of living [i.e., springing, gushing] water.” This is relevant to us even today, as is every aspect of the Torah; one of the lessons derived from this verse is related to the Talmud’s comment on a different verse (Genesis 2:14), “And the fourth river is [named] ‘Pras’.”
The Talmud (B’choros 55b) says that the river Pras is the source of all other rivers in the world, which flow from it; it is also identified as the underground water table which is the source of wells and springs. When one digs for water and reaches the water table – the river Pras – a well of living water bubbles up to the surface. To appreciate the allegorical significance of this, we must take the verses in their sequence, starting from Genesis 2:10, which says that “a river” (no name specified) went forth from Eden to water the garden, from which point it parted into four streams. The next verse identifies the first three streams, and then we come to verse 14 (“and the fourth river is Pras”). The Talmud deduces from the Hebrew phraseology that Pras itself is the unidentified river that originally flowed out of Eden. From this ultimate source, Pras becomes the water table and may therefore be tapped into by digging wells.
All this can be related to us Jews and our practical worship of G-d.
One of the most important goals of a Jew is to achieve such an awareness of G-d’s unity – that G-d pervades all of creation, and that everything that exists is nothing more than a manifestation of divinity – that one’s very actions are motivated by that awareness. One should perform one’s every action (even in everyday activities) for the sake of G-d, rather than for personal, selfish motives. A Jew believes with perfect belief that G-d is the creator of all realms and that all is as naught before Him. Attaining this consciousness of G-d’s all-encompassing unity naturally makes one yearn to be united him- or herself with G-d and to do nothing but His will. For this reason, this concept is referred to as “accepting [upon oneself] the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom,” since the worshipper now desires to proceed through life, not as a self-centered and independent entity, but as one who selflessly follows his or her Master, G-d. Not only is this deference to G-d and inspired altruism an important ethical doctrine, but also, in a mystical sense, it is the very expression of G-d’s unity. As such, it is essential to the overall Divine plan of creation.
(This is easy to understand: just as light is not as striking when surrounded by more light, but is best appreciated when shining out of darkness, G-d created the physical universe in order that His sovereignty might best be expressed. To say that G-d is King, but has no subjects following His will, is but empty rhetoric. G-d deliberately made the world, and placed mankind into it with the choice of either obeying His will or (G-d forbid) not doing so, so that when an individual voluntarily “accepts upon him- or herself the Kingdom of Heaven,” as discussed above, the sovereignty of G-d is most beautifully expressed.)
It develops, then, that bringing oneself to an awareness of G-dliness is a basic element of a Jew’s worship, since every act that he or she performs out of this awareness will then be transformed into a holy act, a spiritual act – even if it is an otherwise ordinary, mundane act. For this reason, our sages composed the morning prayer service in such a way as to bring out this awareness of G-d’s sovereignty. Most of the morning prayers contain verses that tell of the greatness of G-d, so that by deeply meditating upon the meaning of his or her prayers, a worshipper can achieve the consciousness mentioned above. The culmination of this theme in our prayer service is the well-known prayer, the Shema, proclaiming the unity of G-d.
Now, all the above is well and good, but we would be faced with an insurmountable problem were it not for the grace of G-d: the true unity of G-d, while it can be meditated upon at great length in prayer, is after all a mystical concept so profound that it simply ought not be containable in the mind or heart of any created being! How can we mere mortals ever approach a true appreciation of the unity of G-d? The answer is that G-d Himself wants us to be able (not just to appreciate, but actually) to unite with Him, and for that purpose, He gave us the Torah. Although we cannot relate to G-d directly, we can relate to the Torah, in which, in a mystical sense, is indeed “contained” the unity of G-d. That is the reason behind the age-old practice among us Jews to indulge in Torah study immediately after prayer.
A person praying should reflect at length upon their prayers and how they express the greatness of G-d, and develop within themselves a yearning to unite with none other than G-d Himself. They should accept upon themselves the kingdom of Heaven in the Shema prayer, and then, immediately after the service, they will be in a much more receptive state to achieve some degree of actual unity with G-d Himself. At that point, they can quench their thirst for spirituality with Torah study, since they are primed to receive the full benefit of the G-dliness within Torah, which they should study with the full application of their intellect.
At this point, we may begin to see the allegorical application of the abovementioned verses to the topic at hand. The verse, “And a river flowed forth from Eden to water the garden” alludes to the very matter we have been discussing. In mystical literature, the term “Eden” is often used to allude to G-d. The Hebrew word for “garden” (gan) hints at the Torah, since, according to the rules of Hebrew numerology, the word gan has a value of 53 – the number of individual portions in the Torah. Finally, a river is another common symbol in Jewish mysticism, representing, understandably, a flowing or progression from one place to another. Our verse can therefore be interpreted as a reference to the fact that when a person draws down upon him- or herself the kingdom of Heaven – this drawing forth being the “river” flowing from Heaven, from G-d – it waters the gan; that is, it facilitates the person’s uniting with G-d through Torah study.
The Talmud interprets the subsequent verse to mean that this river that flows from Eden becomes the river Pras, the underground source of bubbling streams and gushing wells. This too is relevant to a Jew’s daily service of G-d, and is actually a message of encouragement:
Until now, we have spoken of the ideal situation, wherein an individual stimulates his or her natural thirst for G-d during prayer and is then able immediately to satisfy it through Torah study. However, rare indeed is the person who can afford to sit and study Torah all day. Most people must involve themselves in the material world and its mundane concerns, far removed from the spirituality of their morning service, to earn their livelihood. It is often the case that a person becomes so preoccupied with their daily affairs that they lose their awareness, for the time being, of the heavenly kingdom; they do not travel far on the momentum of their morning inspiration.
It is for just this reason that G-d provided us with mitzvos to perform throughout the day. Mitzvos actually stem from a very sublime spiritual source, and do not require the elaborate preparation or concentration which is ideal for study or prayer. Even if someone performs a mitzvah without thinking about it at all, he or she draws upon him- or herself great spiritual benefit – although it goes without saying that the better one’s intent in performing mitzvos, the greater will be the result, and one should strive to achieve this. That is why mitzvos are to be observed throughout the day: that is when we need them most, since we are sometimes far from our level of the morning, and the mitzvos help us to regain some measure of it.
That is their similarity to a bubbling, gushing well. A wellspring is formed by digging into the ground that covers up the water table, until the buried water is tapped and gushes to the surface. Although our everyday affairs may have covered over and effectively buried that “river” of love for G-d and closeness to Him developed in the morning, we can still tap into that hidden reservoir of spirituality throughout the day by performing mitzvos.
A person about to do a mitzvah should reflect a bit first on how far he or she has drifted from G-d, especially if he or she has sinned in any way (Heaven forbid), and that this mitzvah will serve as a wellspring that taps into the vast reserve of closeness to G-d and subservience to His will that was built up in the morning. It is, after all, due to that very subservience, that acceptance of the kingdom of Heaven, that he or she is performing the particular mitzvah, which is the will of G-d. Then, just as a real wellspring becomes frothy and bubbly from its struggle to push upwards through the earth, so will the person’s mitzvah observance take on a new life, a sparkling vitality, as a result of his or her realization that through these mitzvos, he or she is able to penetrate the layers of “earth,” the worldly matters, that cover over his or her natural subservience to G-d.
We can thus better appreciate the allegory behind the servants of Isaac digging wells, and tapping into a “well of living water.” Mindful of the Talmud’s statement that the water table and source of all wellsprings is the river Pras, we see that that living water – available to be tapped into all day long – is none other than the G-dly vitality flowing forth from Eden itself.
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© 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul. Please note that the foregoing is an informal synopsis by a private person, and that, therefore, errors are possible. The Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here, and constitutes a much more direct transmission of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in the original, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the maamar. Good Shabbos!