Tsav — 5771 — “The Mechanics of Prayer” — Birkat haTefillah #3

21/03/2011 at 12:29 Leave a comment

“The Mechanics of Prayer”

Parashat Tsav

19 March 2011

Neil F. Blumofe


What happens when we pray?  I am not speaking metaphysically in the far raiment of the sky or removed in other worlds beyond our own – rather, what happens to us, physically – what kind of changes occur in our bodies and in our minds that may affect us.  Why does our Jewish tradition put such a value on linking the words that we say with the actions that we take?  We don’t just hold forth from our own derekh – our own way of doing things – rather, certain prayers that we pray have certain movements that if understood can unlock for us additional worlds of meaning.


This morning, I am going to highlight a few examples of why we move within our experiences of prayer – and then too, if you have any examples to ask about, we’ll have time for this conversation as well.


Beyond the ease of paying attention to the words themselves, which give instruction to us – for example, like va’anachu kor’im,– we shall bow, from the Aleinu prayer, our Psalmist speaks about the ways to worship God, past the words that usher forth from our lips or the melodies that carry them aloft.  Like drumming, we recognize that prayer has its own distinct rhythm – kol atzmotai tomarnah haShem mi chamocha – all of my bones shall say, haShem, who is like You? An medieval Midrash on this verse answers the question – how do all of my bones speak?


Here is what the Midrash says:


With my head, I bend my head and bow down in prayer…

And I also wear tefillin on my head.

With my neck, I fulfill the precept of wrapping myself in the tsitsit.

With my mouth I praise You – as it says – tehillat haShem yidaber pi. (Psalms 145:21)

With my face, I prostrate myself – as it says – vayishtachu l’apav artsa (Genesis 48:12)

With my nose, when I smell spices at the end of Shabbat

And with my ears, I listen to the chanting of the Torah.


Much of these actions should be familiar to us – and too, in the course of our prayers we focus attention on certain areas of our body or we make particular movements that can act as triggers to open up the moment that we are engaged in praying and may allow us to more fully give ourselves in prayer – to become, ani tefilati. or, the prayer, itself.

For example, some of the first blessings of the morning praise God for getting us out of bed – think about this tomorrow morning – what are stages as we wake up — pokeiach ivrim – for opening our eyes, matir asurim, for releasing the bound and zokef kefufim, straightening the bent.  Upon arising we immediately pay attention to our body and give thanks for initially checking in with our functioning and then standing up.  If we begin each day with an attitude of gratitude, it just may change our outlook and the way that we choose to experience things all day.


Later in our prayers, the Amidah, which is the central prayer of each prayer service connects our body to our experience of bringing our vulnerability manifested in our prayer before God.  We begin with three steps back and then three steps forward.  Often this action is explained as if we were standing in front of royalty.  If this is helpful, excellent – may I also suggest that in our movements back and forth, we are resetting our reality – we are taking a step back, taking a physical breath and then stepping back into a moment that as we notice it, becomes wholly different.  Think of this as literally, rebooting.


As the Amidah suggests by its name, we stand as we pray it – in contrast to a prayer where we usually sit – the Shema – in different ways, both standing and sitting aid concentration – perhaps we find ourselves with different thoughts in each position.


On the weekdays, the companion prayer to the Amidah is called Tachanun – and in it – we have a progression of movements – we begin bowed on our arm, in a position of supplication – then we move to a sitting position and then finally to a standing position.  I find this prayer in its physicality, one of the most remarkably and thoughtful that we have.  For me, Tachanun is an exploration for us, in trying to get comfortable having our body reflect our position of uncertainty.  We recognize that we are dust and we call on God to help us – in this prayer we are exposed, and we try each position to weigh our words and link our words with our actions.


A different position is experienced during the Kedushah, during the Amidah.  This is when we keep our feet together and raise ourselves up or bounce three times on the balls of our feet – our tradition will tell us that this is to be like the one-legged angels who ministered to God – which is a beautiful image that links us to mystical visions of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.  Further, this energy of lifting ourselves up from our space brings us out of the sluggishness of our everyday life – it is aerobic – drawing air to our deeper places – allowing us to check in with our feet, which is such a distance from our heads.  We are ready to embark on a mystical vision – out of our stuck places.  We are to connect our entire body in this experience – getting out of our rational places and reminding ourselves that we are much more than reason and logic.  In fact, prayer reminds us of how much we cannot control – we put ourselves out there, we enter into the breach of absurdity and say with kol atzmotai: Hineni!


Along these lines, is the business of bowing.  Like the great and mysterious prophet Daniel, we too bow, to show that there is much beyond us – and to give us perspective of our own importance – whether magnified or limited in any given moment.  Our scholars think that when the Tanach describes Daniel in prayer – he kneeled on his knees three times a day and prayer and give thanks before his God (Daniel 6:11) – that he bent himself fully on the ground – as we still do during the Aleinu on the High Holydays.  We fully stretch out – this is quite a different experience that what we are used to.


Later when we moved to the rabbinic understanding of the bow – essentially involving our knees and our upper body, many believe we shifted this because we did not want to emulate or be mistaken for our Middle Eastern neighbors whose customs became a full prostration in their prayers.


We walk as we carry the Torah, we hit our breasts as we pray vidui,  Some raise their pinky fingers as the Torah is raised – although the source for this is murky; we don’t really have a reason why some do this – and when we duchen – the Kohanim come before our congregation and raise their hands in the gestured that Spock made popular on Star Trek, to invite the shechinah onto our heads.


Perhaps the flow of prayer as we are engaged in it is most interesting to me.  We have established that to pray involves rhythm and we have a specific way to do this – called swaying, or shucklen, in Yiddish.  Too, dancing and clapping during prayer, gives us grounding and makes our prayers physical.  The great poet Yehudah haLevi writes that people initially began to sway to give others the opportunity to read out of the limited number of prayerbooks available – maybe, however – the holy Zohar has another explanation:  when a Jew utters one word of Torah, the light in the person’s soul is kindled – and then the person sways side to side like the flame of a candle – ner Adonai nishmat Adam – the lamp of God is the soul of a person.


Perhaps a great rabbi who was also had a musician’s instinct was Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein who authored the Aruch haShulchan in the 19th century.  He writes that we shuckle during prayer because it improves our kavanah and brings us more into the moment as we seek a conversation from our deepest, more unrevealed places with God.  In other words, if we are tapped into our prayers, how could we not move?


Going forward, let us speak about our practice of prayer – as we would about art, yoga or any other discipline.  Chanting and movement amplifies our efforts to connect.  Let us take chances and find openings for ourselves to link our physical, spiritual, and emotional constituents together – and after our prayer services let us answer like Abraham Joshua Heschel did after his march in Selma in 1965.  Let us gain a resonant spiritual significance from our actions, inseparable from our words.

As Heschel wrote, “for many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”


May this be for us – especially in our own prayers – imagine the power of connecting both our weary spirit with our weary body – and in relationship together – really explore the verse kol atzmotai tomarnah haShem mi chamocha – Thus creating an energy and a liveliness that emanates in this vigorous spiritual and physical partnership before God.


Shabbat Shalom.


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