“From the depths, I have called out to You, God.” — מִמַּעֲמַקִּים קְרָאתִיךָ (Psalms 130:1)
What exactly are these ma’amakim, these depths from which we call out to God?
The Sages interpreted the word ma’amakim literally. They taught that one should not pray while standing on a raised platform (Berachot 10b). In fact, in Talmudic times the chazzan would lead communal prayers while standing in a slightly lowered pit.
Nonetheless, prayer “from the depths” is really a matter of mindset. The Talmud’s instruction on where to pray was meant to teach us how to pray. Sincere prayer can only come from an attitude of humility, not from haughty feelings of power and superiority.
Rav Kook suggested an additional, deeper interpretation of these ‘depths’ of prayer.
In the realm of holy thoughts and feelings, there are ‘highs’ and there are ‘lows.’ On occasion, we may experience a spiritual high, when we are overwhelmed by the intense beauty and splendor of the Divine. Such uplifting feelings, together with an intellectual awareness of God’s sublime nature, may bring one to be consumed by a single desire: the joy of being close to God. At this level, all other needs and desires become irrelevant.
These feelings, while truly elevated, are not a suitable springboard for prayer. At such lofty moments, we are unaware of those needs that contribute to the perfection of the spirit. It is not enough to experience a sense of closeness to God. Perfection of both the individual and the world as a whole requires the acquisition of all of the necessary means for gradual elevation.
Therefore, we need to lower our spiritual state when praying and become fully aware of that which is lacking. Then we can pray sincerely to merit God’s assistance and true enlightenment. This mindset instills the recognition that we are meant to acknowledge that we are incomplete, and require the assistance of God, the Source of all good.
The psalmist used the word מִמַּעֲמַקִּים — “from the depths” - in the plural form. For there are really two ‘depths’ at play here. First, we must lower spiritual feelings, to deepen our emotional awareness of all that is lacking. And secondly, we require a deepening of insight, so we will 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)
Illustration image: ‘Praying Jew’ (Stanisław Grocholski, 1892)