The Tisch: Going, going, gone – to pray

In the plainest meaning of the term, “going” somewhere describes a physical relocation. The term can also refer to a spiritual transfer from one realm to another.

rabbis praying in dallas_311 (photo credit: Dallas Morning News/MCT)
rabbis praying in dallas_311
(photo credit: Dallas Morning News/MCT)
In the world of Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (d. 1826), “going” to pray was unlike going anywhere else. In the plainest meaning of the term, “going” somewhere describes a physical relocation. The term can also refer to a spiritual transfer from one realm to another. But for Uri, going to pray was even more than a virtual relocation to a new spiritual plane.
Uri was known as the Seraph, primarily due to his fiery prayers and angel-like disregard for the physical world. He lived his entire life in abject poverty. Though he left behind disciples, he did not found a dynastic hassidic court. The acclaimed poet and member of the first Knesset Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981) was a descendant of Uri and was named after him. In a few of his poems, Greenberg mentions his ancestor.
Uri had one son, Rabbi Shlomo, named after his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi of Karlin (1738-1792). Soon after his father’s death, Shlomo was asked for an anecdote about his conduct. He responded with two vignettes: Each morning before his father went to Shaharit, he would enter the kitchen to say good-bye to his wife and the other members of his household. But this was no ordinary “Good-bye, see you later.” Uri bade good-bye his wife each morning, saying: “I am going to pray. If I succeed, perhaps I will be so enraptured with my prayer, so attached to the Almighty, that I will not return.”
The son continued with the second image: As Uri took his leave, he told those present that there was a certain box with manuscripts in it. “Know,” he said, “that these manuscripts were penned by my master R. Shlomo of Karlin, not by me. The writings should not be attributed to me.” Once again, indicating that there was a real possibility that he would not return from the morning service.
One of Uri’s disciples related a similar tale. Early one morning, the student was summoned by his teacher. When the student arrived, Uri instructed him to design a title page for a certain manuscript that was in his possession. The student replied that such a task should not be done in a hurried manner, and he would be happy to fulfill his master’s request immediately after Shaharit.
Uri responded: “I did not author the manuscript, and I am going now to pray with the intent to forfeit my life for the sake of the Almighty. I know not if I will ever return home. Lest someone chance upon the manuscript and mistakenly suggest that these are my novellae, you must immediately write a title page with the author’s name, even before Shaharit!” Biographers of Uri have noted that much of his approach to prayer can be traced to his prime teacher, R. Shlomo of Karlin.
A certain householder once invited Shlomo to come to his home on the morrow. His response was swift and definitive: “Fool! We still have to pray Arvit and read the Shema with utter devotion. Moreover, tomorrow we must pray Shaharit, and in the prayer service we spiritually ascend through different realms until we reach the pinnacle where we read the Shema. After that, we add heartfelt supplications about our misdeeds. Perhaps The Holy One will grant my desire to forfeit my life in devotion to the Almighty. And you want me to promise that I will pay you a visit tomorrow?!” For Rabbi Uri of Strelisk and his teacher Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin before him, “going” to pray was embarking upon a voyage from which there might not be any return. At any rate, if the prayer journey was entirely successful, this would be their last.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.