God has many ways to create an uproar in our souls. He can show us a moment in the life of a person who seems to live in complete tranquility, sometimes using the most unusual people to convey an important message.
In the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there is a portrait by Rembrandt’s most celebrated student, the master painter Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). The portrait is called Old Woman at Prayer. (To view the painting, google “Old Woman at Prayer.”) It is sometimes called Prayer without End because it portrays an old woman in total surrender while praying. A lonesome figure, resigned to her simple, lonely life, but totally content. Nothing can disturb her while she is praying. Her devotion is absolute. She prays with a profundity that is rare in the extreme. Who is able to pray like that? She thanks God for her simple bread, fish and drink. For the clean tablecloth and the chair on which she sits. She is thankful for the little cat that gives color to her life which is coming to a close. She gives thanks for being allowed to be, in spite of all the worries and suffering she has had to endure in her life. No resentful melancholy; no rebellion; no boredom; and above all, no mockery. Nothing but: Lord, thanks for my share…
When looking at this painting one is forced to peer into one’s own soul. We ask ourselves whether we are capable of living this life of simplicity and tranquility. Can we reach such a state of soul and mind in today’s world when we are completely overtaken by the ongoing barrage of crises that we ourselves have created because of social and other pressures? We have constructed a tower of financial needs, which we have convinced ourselves we can no longer live without. We hope that by fulfilling these needs we will find the tranquility of Nicolaes Maes’s old woman, not realizing that we have been caught up in a web that we ourselves have spun and that moves us farther away from our very goal.
The soul rarely knows itself. It does not know how to raise its deeper secrets to the level where the mind can grasp them. Most religious people act their faith but do not realize that faith is a constant happening. It cannot be stored away somewhere for the mind to find whenever it so requires. Faith is a moment in which the soul of man and God’s majesty meet. No ladder can be climbed to reach this goal through philosophical arguments. The mind is walled and there are no ways to enter. All that the mind has are some translucent windows through which it can see the landscape of the soul and get a glimpse of what happens on the other side. And when man rises to reach out to God, it is the result of divine light within, which creates this yearning.
Nicolaes Meas’s old woman knows more than the greatest philosophers. She experiences the moment when – to use the Talmudic phrase – heaven and earth kiss. She knows how to lift the veil off the horizon of the unknown and gains a vision of the eternity of her life on earth, soon to end. A thunder in her soul transforms her into a woman in complete stillness. She knows the verse, “The Lord spoke these words to your entire assembly on the mountain, out of the fire, cloud, and thick darkness, in a loud voice that continues forever” [Devarim 5:19].
She may not have been Jewish, but she managed to have a Rosh Hashanah without End.