The most solemn and sacred part of our daily prayers is the amidah (“standing” prayer), where the soul achieves the height of intimacy in its communion with its Creator. So sacrosanct is this prayer that the Talmud instructs: “Even if a king greets him, he should not respond; even if a snake is coiled around his heel, he should not interrupt.”
However, the Talmud goes on to qualify this law by explaining that the “snake” in question is one whose venom is not life-threatening. Thus, if a scorpion, whose sting can be fatal, threatens a person while he is praying, he should interrupt his prayers.
Like the human being it comes to instruct, the Torah consists of a “body”—a code of law that governs the physical life of man—as well as a “soul”—an inner dimension that addresses our spiritual selves. And every part of the Torah’s body has its counterpart in the Torah’s soul. Every law in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch encapsulates within it a deeper significance, instructing the inner life of man in addition to his external behavior.
The same is true of the legal distinction between a “snake” and a “scorpion” as regards the interruption of prayer. Our sages tell us that a snake injects a person with a “burning” poison, while a scorpion’s poison is “cold.” Translated into the terms of “the service of the heart” that is the inner essence of prayer, there are two types of spiritual maladies that threaten the soul in its quest to come close to G-d. The first is a “burning poison”—the heat and passion of earthly desires. A second spiritual threat is the poison of “coldness”—the apathy which leaves a person indifferent to everything and anything, material and spiritual alike.
In Maimonides’ description of Abraham’s quest for truth and his recognition of the One G-d, we read that, initially, Abraham was “immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers of Ur Kasdim; his father, mother and the entire population—he amongst them—all worshipped idols.” Asks Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: why is it important that we know that the first Jew once worshipped idols? But it is precisely because Abraham worshipped idols, answers Rabbi Schneur Zalman, that he came to recognize the divine truth. Because he cared, because he passionately and devotedly served what he had been misleadingly taught to regard as worthy of worship, his sincere desire matured into a desire for G-d. Had he been indifferent to the idols of his native land, he would never have searched for and discovered the true G-d.
Thus the Talmud says: “Even if a snake is coiled around his heel, he should not interrupt.” Even if you feel threatened by a poisonous heat, keep on praying. Place yourself in G-d’s hands and beseech Him to guide you to the truth. If your intentions are pure, your profane heat will be transformed into a holy fire.
On the other hand, if a person is threatened by the frigid poison of a scorpion, he must interrupt his prayers. When a person is faced with the icy sting of indifference—even if it is only his “heel” (i.e., a lowly and marginal part of the self) that is threatened—he must conduct a full re-assessment and re-orientation of his spiritual life. Nothing positive and holy can ever spring forth from spiritual coldness.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Eikev 5716 (July 28, 1956)