“From the depths, I have called out to You, God.” (Ps. 130:1)
What exactly are these ma’amakim, these depths, from which we call out to God?
The Sages understood this verse literally, teaching that one should not pray while standing on a chair or a raised platform (Berachot 10b). Thus, in Talmudic times, the chazzan (prayer-leader) would lead the prayers from a slightly lowered pit. Nonetheless, prayer “from the depths” is really a matter of mind-set. The Talmudic instruction on where to pray was meant to teach how to pray. Sincere prayer can only come from a state of humility, not from haughty feelings of power and superiority.
Rav Kook gave another, more profound explanation for these ‘depths’ of prayer.
Within the realm of holy thoughts and feelings, there are ‘highs’ and ‘lows.’ Occasionally one may experience a spiritual high, when one is overwhelmed by the intense beauty and splendor of the Divine. Such uplifted feelings, together with an intellectual awareness of God’s sublime nature, may bring one to be consumed by a single desire: the spiritual joy of being close to God. At this level, all other needs and wants become completely irrelevant.
Yet, these feelings, while truly elevated, are not a suitable spring-board for prayer. At such lofty moments, one is unaware of those needs, which are nonetheless necessary to achieve perfection of spirit. It is not enough to experience these feelings of divine closeness. Perfection of both the individual and the world depends on acquiring all of the means needed to gradually elevate the universe.
Therefore, we need to lower our spiritual state when praying, and become fully aware of that which is lacking. Then we can pray sincerely for God’s assistance, and achieve true enlightenment. For such a mind-set instills the recognition that we are meant to be aware that we are incomplete, and require the assistance of God, the Source of all good.
The psalmist used the word mema’amakim — “from the depths” - in the plural form. For there are really two ‘depths’ here. First, a lowering of spiritual feeling, in order to deepen our emotional awareness of all that is missing. And secondly, a deepening of insight, to recognize the necessity of wants and needs in the world, as they are an integral part of our reality.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 61)