Rabbi Dovid’l Weinberg talks to God.
In his new book, “Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation,” he argues that you should too — and that talking to God is why God created us in the first place.
In that, Rabbi Weinberg is a student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the chassidic teacher who preached the importance of personal prayers to God in one’s native language and died in 1810.
Rabbi Weinberg is part of the neo-chassidic revival movement in modern Orthodoxy; he was ordained at Yeshiva University and cites Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his book. He is on the faculty of Orayta, a yeshiva in Jerusalem that serves the modern Orthodox community. But he has studied deeply and been influenced profoundly by chassidic teachings, including those of Breslov and Lubavitch.
Rabbi Weinberg, 35, made aliyah 10 years ago, but returned to America with his wife and their three children so he could get medical treatment for T-cell lymphoma. His parents and his two brothers live in Bergen County. He settled in Bergenfield, where he wrote his book and tested the material on a live audience as a part-time teacher at Heichal Hatorah, a boy’s yeshiva high school in Teaneck.
Rabbi Weinberg said that his book aims to fill a gap in the library of books on prayer.
“There are books explaining the prayers of the siddur,” he said. “There are books that are inspirations to prayer, with stories about people whose prayers were answered. There’s occasionally a book talking about the philosophical issues: How does prayer work? After all, Hashem knows everything everything anyway.
“I felt there was room for a different book, about what a prayerful relationship with God looks like and feels like. Something that would speak to a very human side of connectivity, show that the entire reason Hashem created the world was to give us an opportunity to communicate with Him and share through that communication.”
Rabbi Weinberg said that the communication with God is two-way. “Hashem has ideas, represented through the Torah.” In studying Torah, you receives God’s communication. “Torah is Hashem’s kiss,” he writes.
God also communicates outside the realm of Torah study, Rabbi Weinberg said.
“The idea of prayer being a conversation becomes much more relevant when we actually see study and the events that happen in our lives as a divine call to us. This saved my life many times in the past year and a half — being able to see my own illness and recovery as divine communication. I didn’t always succeed. The conversation is also beneficial when you say to God, ‘This is painful, I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me.’”
The book shows its roots in the world of Breslov. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from either Rabbi Nachman or one of his students, and it closes with a technique practiced in the Breslov circles of turning a lesson into a prayer. The prayer at the end of the first chapter concludes with this address to God: “Please arouse my heart to set aside moments of mindful meditation and calmness of spirit to seclude myself with You and to pour out my heart like water before You, each and every day.”
“When I study something, I need to turn whatever I was studying into an excuse to talk to God about,” Rabbi Weinberg explained. “Instead of being a more frontal scholarly presentation, it’s very much an opportunity to turn to God.”
As Rabbi Weinberg reads the first two chapters of Genesis — the subject of his book — creation is the story of a Creator who wants to communicate with His creations, and the pitfalls along the way that can illuminate our own path to communicating with the Creator.
In the beginning, God created the world through speech. “God said, let there be light.”
“By creating through speech, God says, I want an opportunity to talk,” Rabbi Weinberg said. “Hashem is making a bid for communication with us.” And according to kabbalistic teachings, “the building blocks of creation are the letters of the aleph bet, the building blocks of communication.”
Rabbi Weinberg sees the twin trees of the Garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as a lesson about how people should choose to live their spiritual lives. “A lot of people walk around and enjoy the intellectual part of Torah study but aren’t putting toward any form of relationship with God,” he said. “That’s choosing the tree of knowledge over the tree of life. To really live by the tree of life means to be in a living relationship with Hashem. You have a choice: Intellectual study for its own stake, or the choice to enter a spiritual dialogue, through the agency of Torah, as a springboard to prayer, as a means of calling out to God.”
Rabbi Weinberg is clear that personal prayer should not replace the mandated prayer of the siddur, or of communal services. “Being overly focused on personal prayer is a possible pitfall,” he said. “It could lead to a narcissistic way of looking at the world.”
Of course, communal services are curtailed these days. Rabbi Weinberg experienced a foreshadowing of this experience during his treatment for lymphoma treatment, when he couldn’t attend services for fear of infection.
It gave him an appreciation of what he was missing, he said. Because he lived in a house next to a synagogue, he was able to look out a window and down into the congregation. “It was a remarkable experience. I can’t really stress enough of how in these moments of forced personal prayer, of not having a community, the importance of using whatever windows we have — whether windows or technology, whether audio or visual or written — to connect with the community, so that our personal connection with Hashem is rooted in human connection as well.”