Once, during the Days of Awel, the sainted kabbalist Yitzchak Luria heard a Bat Kol telling him that for all his prayerful intensity there was one man in a neighboring town whose capacity for prayer exceeded even his own. As soon as he could, Reb Yitzchak traveled to that town and sought the man out.
“I have heard wondrous things regarding you,” he said to the man when he found him. “Are you a Torah scholar?”
“No,” the man said, “I have never had the opportunity to study.”
“Then you must be a master of Psalms, a devotional genius who prays with great intensity.”
“No,” the man said. “I have heard the Psalms many times, of course, but I do not know even one well enough to recite it.”
“And yet,” Rabbi Luria cried, “I was told that the quality of your prayer surpasses even my own! What did you do during the Days of Awe that would merit such praise?”
“Rabbi,” the man said, “I am illiterate. Of the twenty-two letters of the alef-beis I know but ten. When I entered the synagogue and saw the congregation so fervent in their prayers, my heart shattered within me. I couldn’t pray at all. So I said: Ribbono shel Olam, here are the letters I know: aleph, beis, gimmel, daled, hay, vav, zayin, chet, tes, yud. Combine them in a manner You understand, and I hope they will be pleasing to You. And then I repeated these ten letters over and over again, trusting God to weave them into words.”
Like a babbling baby, the scat of a jazz vocalist, or the niggunim (wordless melodies) of the Hasidim, the repetition of pure sound can open us to a world beyond words and the limited mindset that worships them. To repeat the letters over and again, to simply give voice to sound without locking it into fixed and conventional meanings, is to move from map to territory, from thoughts about God to God Itself. But the repetition cannot be done as technique. It must come from a profound realization that there is no technique. Like the fellow in our story, you have to become spiritually illiterate. Simply offer the sounds as sounds, and let God do the rest. Anything else is still an attempt to control the territory by manipulating the map.
Days of Awe: The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, New Year’s Day to the Day of Atonement, are devoted to deep self-reflection and repentance.
Bat Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice”): The Voice of God.
Alef-beis: The Hebrew alef-bet, or alphabet.
Ribbono shel Olam: Master of the Universe, one of the names of God.
Alef, beis, gimmel…: The first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet.