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Prayer #10 - Upside-down Hourglass

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

By having the right intention in prayer, we raise the sparks and bring time closer to its ultimate end.

The eighth blessing of the silent prayer known as the Amidah, or the Shemoneh Esrai reads:

Return our judges as in previous times and our advisors as at first. Remove from us sadness and sighing and reign over us, You, God, alone, with compassion, and justify us through judgment.

Unfortunately, today, many judges and advisors -- that is, our leaders -- give us cause to groan and to ask God for better times. In addition to giving us new leaders, we also ask God to rule over us so that no one can doubt His existence.

In order to be able to appreciate the centrality and depth of this blessing, an explanation is required.

The Kabbalists explain that just before the creation of the physical world took place, God put into place the spiritual "materials" that He would use to create the world, and provide it with life.

These "
include the "holy sparks," which we spoke about in the last installment in this series, and which are "
packets of spiritual energy"
responsible for energizing all that physically exists, including man. They are not physical but spiritual realities that function in very much the same way our souls do. They are invisible, yet, the very source of life that allows our bodies to function.

For very deep mystical reasons, God arranged for three "
of sparks originating from three separate levels in the sefirot (called chochmah, binah and da'
) to "
into the place in which creation would eventually exist. Since each sefirah represents a channel of spiritual energy, each group of sparks that fell was also , and the amount of sparks in each group was determined by God based upon all the needs of physical creation, present and future.

Thus, 320 sparks fell from the sefirah of chochmah; 280 sparks fell from the sefirah of binah; and, 288 sparks fell from the sefirah of da'
. (There is added significance to these numbers because of the Hebrew letters they represent, but that is too complex a discussion for this essay.) Depending upon the moment in history, what needs to be accomplished at that time, and who is performing the act, the sparks are drawn and used from any one or more of these groups of sparks.

Some of them were used just to create the world; some were left over for man to use throughout history, to help bring the purpose of creation to fruition. When all of these sparks are used up, then, history as we know it will come to end, and the Messiah will reign.


History is like an upside-down hourglass. Normally, with respect to a conventional hourglass, time is measured by the amount of granules that make their way from the upper chamber to the lower one. When it comes to the holy sparks, it is just the opposite: time is measured by how many sparks make their way from the lower spiritual level on which we live to that of the sefirot above, considered to be the "
and source of these sparks.

Just like fumes from spent gasoline rise upward, so, too, do the sparks that we use up through our actions spiritually rise upward, back to their sources in the sefirot. When all the sparks are returned to their home, then all of history, as we know it, will come to an end.

According to the great 16th century Kabbalist the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria), that is really the Kabbalistic meaning of this blessing, alluded to by the first letters of the first three words: heh, shin, chof. Numerically, these three letters add up to 325, a number, according to the Ari, which alludes to the 320 sparks we have already mentioned, and, something else called the "five gevurot." The "
five gevurot"
are lights that exist within creation constricting God'
s light and "
hiding His face."
Thus, these lights too require "
through our deeds, as their inclusion in this blessing indicates.

These are the "judges," Kabbalistically speaking, that we want "returned" so the Messiah can come, and history can proceed to its ultimate destination.


By praying and having the right intention, we are asking God to help us to do that which is necessary to cause the sparks to ascend to their rightful places in the sefirot, so that history can come to a glorious close, and only good will reign.

They can also be called "
because our personal judgment will be a function of the sparks we used up for the sake of performing mitzvoth.

Although we may not understand this fully, the Men of the Great Assembly, who constructed each blessing of the Shemoneh Esrai, word by word, letter by letter, using prophecy and mystical knowledge to instruct them in their holy work, probably didn't expect us to.

Then, what was the point of embedding such holy meanings if, for the majority of the people, they won't trigger anything significant?

Because, just having a general intention for the simple words of the blessing, and keeping in mind that, behind those simple words, there is sublime meaning, is enough to trigger all kinds of profound responses in the sefirot, and, ultimately, within the world in which we live.

Kabbalah we may leave for the Kabbalists, but prayer, and the service of the heart, is something that all of us can do, and in doing so, have an intense effect on creation.


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