Rungs To The Divine- 5 Levels Of Prayer By The Graves of The Righteous

arizal kabbalah parsha prayer Jun 16, 2022

Rungs To The Divine- Prayer By The Graves of The Righteous 

By Rabbi Amichai Cohen 


A song of ascents.

 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
 My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth... -Psalm 121

Prayer is one of the most powerful tools for connecting with the Divine.


In the words of the Sages, prayer is called a ladder, and the rungs represent the stages of consciousness. 


Prayer by the graves of the righteous is a form of spiritual connection that has special significance according to Talmudic as well as Kabbalistic sources. 


In discussing the verse, "They went up through the south and [he] came until Hebron..." (Num. 13:22), the Talmud interprets it to imply that Caleb, the only one of the twelve spies besides Joshua who did not slander the land of Israel, came to Hebron alone.


Why did Caleb make this solo side trip? 


"He went to prostrate himself upon the graves of the Patriarchs. He said, 'Fathers of the world (the Machpela cave on Hebron), pray for me that I will be saved from the evil counsel of the other spies." (Sota 34b) 


The Zohar states that without the prayers of tzadikim, the world would not endure for a single moment. Tzadikim shield the world - even more so after their death than in their earthly lives. 


A striking example is the Matriarch Rachel, who, we are told, was buried on the highway at Bethlehem so that her descendants in exile after the destruction of the First Temple could pray at her grave, and she could pray for them. 


Also, the Midrash movingly depicts a distraught Joseph tearing himself away from his captors and weeping hot tears over his mother's grave.

In our days, we, too, utilize this same principle of calling upon the merit of departed tzadikim, their benevolent prayers, and the holiness of their final resting places. In fact, not only is this practice permitted, it is recommended, and in certain situations, such as severe droughts, it is actually legislated. (Taanit 16a)


Moreover, the model of Caleb praying at the burial site of the Patriarchs is extended not only to the resting places of tzadikim but also to one's personal ancestors. 


In Rabbinic law, there is strong approval for the practice of praying at one's ancestors' graves in times of difficulty. It is their merit that can intervene to help avert an unpleasant decree. 


It is an almost universal Jewish custom to visit the graves of close relatives on the anniversary of their passing and to pray there.


Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, called the Mittler rebbe, wrote about the special benefits of prayer by Tzadikim. There are several levels and ways of appreciating the concept of prostrating oneself in prayer at a grave. The Mittler Rebbe expands upon these concepts.


In general, there are five levels or rungs in the spiritual process of prayer by the graves of the righteous. 



1) To Arouse Humility


The Code of Jewish law, or Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, Hil­chos Tishah Be’Av), states,   “it is customary to visit graves in order to arouse feelings of mourning, to humble the yetzer hora (negative inclination), and to be inspired to turn to G‑d in teshuvah.” 


The Talmud (Berachot 5a) says that in order to humble our ego or yetzer hora, one should remind oneself of the day of death. The wisest of all men, King Solomon, says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of rejoicing... so that the living take it to heart.” 


This causes one humility and appreciation of the potential of using our days wisely and living a life we can be proud of after we leave this physical world. 



2) To Illicit Mercy 


The Shulchan Aruch, (Hilchos Rosh HaShanah) says that, on the day before Rosh HaShanah, it is cus­tomary to go to the cemetery and make manifold supplica­tions. 


The rationale is given there that the cemetery is the resting place of the righteous or tzaddikim. 


As such, it is a holy and pure place, and a prayer recited there will be more acceptable. A person should ask G‑d for mercy in the merit of the tzaddikim who rest in the dust.”


In particular, two reasons are given: The place and the person. 

  • The place is holy and pure. This will cause the person’s prayers to be ac­cepted in heaven. 
  • The person praying will be aroused to reexamine and repent (teshuvah) for what they have been remiss in. King Solomon writes, “the living take it to heart.” This will cause the prayers of the individual to be desir­able and acceptable in heaven. 



3) Repentance  


For reasons similar to those for which one visits the resting place of one’s father, one’s only son, or the like, which arouses grieving and lament, causing one’s heart to become broken yet open to the true purpose of life.


When one’s dead is (G-d forbid) actually lying before one, at which time one’s heart is truly broken, because of the sorrow which penetrates to the depths of one’s heart, causing one to cry bit­terly.


The Talmud says that Rabbi Yochanan would carry a portion of a bone from his son’s body with him at all times. He would tell others, “This is a bone from my tenth son,” i.e., he would carry the bone with him to arouse sorrow so that he would not forget his son, and as a result, his heart would always be contrite. 


Similarly, Yaakov, our Patriarch, “mourned for his son for many days.” He would grieve bitterly over his son’s passing because it was something that he could not forget at all.


Similarly, when a person goes to the grave of a tzaddik, although the tzaddik’s passing was forgotten for a long time, the person will remember and take it to heart to the extent that he will cry very bitterly. 


This will cause his heart to open entirely, enabling him to cry over his sins until his heart is utterly contrite and crushed, leading to excessive tears.

This experience can bring a person to complete teshuvah. 


Our Sages explain that teshuvah is held back because of a per­son’s coarseness and the haughtiness of the heart. 


When a person’s heart is thoroughly and truly broken, for whatever reason, he has the potential to be aroused to complete teshu­vah.


This reflects the type of hardship referred to as “the hardships of love,” which afflict a person with regard to his chil­dren, his health, and his livelihood. The person is crushed in order to motivate him to complete teshuvah, as King David says, “from the per­son’s inner dimensions, and the depths of his heart.”


This is evidenced by Rabbi Yochanan, who would say, “This is a bone from my tenth son.” In Rabbi Yochanan’s instance, these were sure “the hardship of love.”



4) Emunah In Tzadikim 


The fourth rationale relates to those who visit the graves of the tzaddikim whom they knew and related to dur­ing their lifetime and comes as a result of the strength of the bond of faith with which the person believed in the tzaddik dur­ing his lifetime. 


As a result of the fact that the tzaddik was a G‑dly man whom all would describe as holy when the person would enter the tzaddik’s presence, he would lose all self-concern and feel overwhelming shame and contriteness. 


The person would be embarrassed and would shrink in the presence of the tzaddik, becoming lifeless, like a stone, without the ability to speak. 


This is a genuine reflection of self-negation, [as explained in Chassidus, with regard to prefacing our prayers with the verse: “G‑d, open my lips, and let my mouth speak Your praise.”


Similarly, when a person goes to the tzaddik’s holy resting place, he should lose all self-concern in an even more powerful manner. 


The Talmud says, “the righteous are greater after their death than in their lifetime.” 


The AriZal says that these feelings stem from the great faith with which the person believes in the holiness and purity of the tzaddik’s soul, which ascended to place in the most sublime spiritual realms, and from the residual influ­ence of the soul which remains associated with the body in the grave.


Moreover, even the encompassing powers of the tzaddik’s soul establish a connection with the portion of the soul that remains associated with the body in the grave. 


This is one of the reasons for erecting a gravestone over the grave, creating a seat for the soul’s encompassing powers, as explained in Likkutei Torah.


Therefore, when one comes to the holy resting place of a tzaddik and pictures the image of his holy and pure counte­nance, he will be overwhelmed with fear and awe more than he was in his lifetime. When in the holy man’s lifetime, his soul was contained in a physical body, but now it is in its pure spiritual state. 


This enables a person to come to a complete state of self-negation, and yirah ilaah, a sublime state of fear. 


Yirah ilaah is the inner dimension of awe cou­pled with (positive) shame. 


Just as a person feels embarrassed in the presence of a great and righteous man because of his own humble stature, this causes him to lose self-concern totally, to the extent that he feels like nothing. So too, with regard to yirah ilaah, one feels shame because of G‑d’s great­ness. We know G‑d’s greatness is without limit, for the Or Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinite light, “extends upward without any bounds, and downward without any end.” (Zohar)


This level of fear is alluded to in our Sages’ statement: “If there is no wisdom, there is no awe.” For the sublime wis­dom is the power of nothingness, the attribute of self-nega­tion, and this leads to yirah ilaah.


Similarly, when a person goes to the grave of a holy tzaddik, he can feel great shame and lose all sense of self con­cern because he feels great embarrassment over all his deeds and thoughts which he performed until the present day, for they are all revealed before the tzaddik. 


For even in his life­time, a tzaddik is aware of another person’s thoughts and designs, as is well known. Surely, this applies after the tzad­dik’s passing, for then his existence is spiritual.


The self-negation and shame that a person feels is also a result of the Or Ein Sof, which actually gives life to the soul of this tzaddik. For the tzaddik’s soul is “an actual part of G‑d,” totally subordinated to the Or Ein Sof.


In this manner, a person can arouse abundant mercies on the G‑dly spark within his soul when becoming conscious of his own low level. This reflects the rung of teshuvah ilaah, sublime teshuvah.


This represents teshuvah ilaah, a far higher level of teshu­vah than that discussed with regard to the third level described above.


Moreover, the powerful bond of faith tying the soul of the tzaddik to the inner core of the person’s heart is amplified by the power of imagery that enables him to conceive of the tzaddik’s likeness in a spiritual sense and makes it possible for the person’s soul to cling to a par­ticular dimension of the soul of the tzaddik resting there. 


This resembles the level of the spirit clinging to the spirit, which is mentioned with regard to the tzaddikim.


This will also enable the prayers one recites there to ascend to the higher planes as the soul of the tzaddik ascends. And his prayer can bear fruit which will be evident in both the spiritual and material realms.


This is the power of the faith in the tzaddikim and the rea­son why people visit their graves even when they do not com­pre­hend these spiritual con­cepts at all, as will be ex­plained.



5) Soul Union


The fifth reason for visiting the grave of a tzaddik relates to a very high spiritual rung. This is the prostration at the graves of the tzaddikim, which is described by Eliezer Azkari (student of the AriZal) in Sefer Chassidim. 


This is such a high level that it enables a person to comprehend concepts on the spiritual plane.


To explain this point: The person is able to cause his soul to ascend to the level at which the soul of the tzaddik is attached to the limbs of Adam, the first man, who possessed a com­prehensive soul. 

This serves as a stimulus as their souls ascend in this mystic process, generating spiritual arousal from below. 


More precisely, the Aramaic term used is mayin nukvin, literally, “female wa­ters,” employing an analogy from our sexual potential. This enables the soul of the tzaddik to descend to the bodies of those who seek to cling to him and speak to them, thus bringing about an actual clinging of the spirit to the spirit. 


This enables a person visiting the grave of a tzaddik to comprehend lofty concepts with regard to the secrets of the Torah and to become encompassed in yichuda ilaah, the sublime unity, as men­tioned in the Kabbalistic text Emek HaMelech. 


There it is explained that the AriZal would teach his students mystic secrets to recite [at the graves of] the great tzaddikim, and in this man­ner, comprehend sublime concepts. Indeed, this was the greatness of the AriZal, that the sublime souls would reveal the secrets of the Torah to him.


The Alter Rebbe says that this rung is extremely exalted, surpassing the experience of the revelation of Eliyahu or of being granted Divine spirit (ruach hak­odesh).


In the text Emek HaMe­lech, it says that  R. Chayim Vital’s greatness stemmed from the fact that the soul of Benayahu ben Yehoyada enclothed itself within him and shined inwardly within him. 


This was achieved through these mystic secrets, which he repeated at his grave on numerous occasions. The souls of the two shared a connection to each other, as explained there. 


At this level, it is possible when he elevates his nefesh, ruach, and neshamah to a higher plane to be fused to the nefesh, ruach, and neshamah of the tzaddik who is in Gan Eden and delight­ing in the radiance of the Divine Presence.


On this plane, there is actually compre­hending G‑dines as alluded to in verse in Song of Songs, “Those who sit in the gardens, friends listen to your voice.” 


This is inter­preted to mean that the angels listen to the voice of the souls which sit in Gan Eden. 


May all of our prayers be answered in full measure and in a quick manner!


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