The Service of the Heart
Prayer is "a ladder set upon the earth whose head touches the heavens" (Genesis 28:12). This ladder consists of four rungs: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; or love, awe, integration and self-abnegation.
The heart of man is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of identifiable emotions. But in a most general sense, we recognize two primary drives: the impulse to approach and come near, and the impulse to recoil and withdraw. To the first category belong such emotions as love, yearning, and kindness; to the second category, feelings such as awe, fear, reverence and humility.
The repertoire of the heart also includes emotions that combine both these motions of self. A mature emotional relationship will include feelings that are both loving and revering -- feelings that integrate a striving for closeness with a restraining awe.
Indeed, such a synthesis of love and awe is the heart's highest form of emotional expression. But an even greater achievement of the heart is thenegation of emotion. For all emotions, whether of the self-extending, self-contracting or integrating sort, are a form of self-expression; and to truly relate to someone or something that lies beyond the self, one must divest oneself of every vestige of self-interest and self-regard.
These are the four rungs in the ladder of prayer. In the first phase of the service of the heart (which culminates in the first section of the), the objective is to develop a feeling of love towards , a yearning and craving to draw close to Him. The second phase (coinciding with the second section of the Shema) is the development of feelings of reverence and awe toward G-d. The third phase (associated with the blessing "True and Enduring", recited between the Shema and the ) is the fusion of love and awe in our relationship with G-d. In the fourth phase (attained during the silent recitation of the Amidah) we transcend emotion itself, abnegating all feeling and desire to achieve an utter commitment and unequivocal devotion to G-d.
In the terminology ofand , love and awe are the eyes and the ears of the heart. Sight is the most intimate of the senses; hearing, the most distant and detached. Hence love -- the heart's yen to draw close -- is its faculty of sight, and awe, the heart's impulse to retreat and withdraw, is its sense of hearing.
Reuben, whose name derives from the Hebrew reiyah, sight, and who was so named by his mother because "G-d has seen my suffering; now my husband shall love me" (Genesis 29:32), thus represents the first stage of prayer -- the element of love in our service of the heart. Simeon -- from shemiah, hearing, so named in response to the fact that "G-d has heard that I am rejected" (ibid. v. 33) -- represents the second stage of prayer, the heart's recoil in reverence and awe. Levi, meaning "attachment" and "cleaving" (his birth prompted Leah to say, "Now my husband shall cleave to me, for I have borne him three sons" -- ibid. v. 34) represents the union of love and awe in the third stage of prayer. And Judah, whose name means "he who concedes" ("This time I shall concede thanks to G-d" -- ibid. v. 35) represents the fourth rung in the ladder of prayer -- the self-abnegation to G-d we express in the silent Amidah.
Tomado de Chabad.org