On a trip through Ruzhin, a group of misnagedim (The opponents of the Hasidim) thought to visit Reb Yisrael to complain about the behavior of his Hasidim.
“You call us antagonists, but at least we walk in the path of God. We study Torah at set times, we pray with a minyan (Prayer quorum of ten) each morning, and when we are finished with our prayers we sit in our tallis and tefillin and study Mishmayos. But you Hasidim who dare to call yourselves the pious ones pray when you feel like it, and then sit down to a glass of vodka! Why, it is outrageous to call this piety!”
The rebbe listened to their complaint quietly. When they were finished, he said, “My learned guests, as you well know, the times of prayer were set to correspond to the sacrifices in the Temple, which can no longer be performed (notes: The sacrifices stopped with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.). As you also know, an improper thought in the mind can render both sacrifice and prayer unclean. So we wait to pray until our minds are clear of distractions.”
The misnagedim were impressed with this answer. “And the drinking after prayer?”
“As you no doubt also know, the Evil Inclination is the source of these thoughts and has invented many strategies for distracting us. So we Hasidim have a counter-strategy. After formal prayer, we sit and wish each other ‘L’Chayyim!’ (“To Life!”). At that moment, each of us in turn reveals to the group his most desperate need, and we respond ‘May God grant your request!’ Now the Evil Inclination is listening to all of this, but since it is said in an informal way, in mamaloshen rather than Hebrew, the Evil One assumes we are speaking idly and ignores us. Yet, Torah tells us that prayer can be in any language, so our seemingly informal talk is in fact the deepest prayer, untainted by distracting thoughts and certain to rise all the way to heaven.”
Not knowing how to respond, the misnagedim nodded curtly to the rebbe and returned to their journey.
Misnagedim: The opponents of the Hasidim.
Minyan: Prayer quorum of ten.
Tallis: A four-cornered fringed shawl worn during certain prayers as a reminder of God’s Presence (Numbers 15:38).
Tefillin (“phylacteries”): Two small black leather boxes containing four passages from Torah: Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 13-21.
Mishnayos: The Mishnah (teaching, instruction) is the first authoritative collection of rabbinic teaching spanning the period from 250 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.
Notes: The sacrifices stopped with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
Evil Inclination (Hebrew: yetzer harah): People are born with two innate passions: the passion for self-effacement (yetzer hatov, the Good Inclination) and the passion for self-aggrandizement, the Evil Inclination. The latter can be channeled to serve the former, creating a balance between self-care and service to others.
L’Chayyim (“To Life!”): Traditional toast when drinking.
Mamaloshen: Mother tongue, referring to Yiddish — the everyday language of Eastern European Jews from the early Middle Ages to the present.
True prayer is the spontaneous outpouring of an open and naked soul. Such prayer cannot be controlled, edited, or fixed, and yet this is precisely what the Evil Inclination urges us to do. It haunts us with the notion that only the old words, the formal words, the words of the past, can reach God, the Eternal Present. It offers us an image of God as habit, a God that is reduced to fixed forms and formulae. Reb Yisrael offers us another view: God as unscripted Presence-in-Life. Therefore the only true prayer is L’Chayyim: To Life!