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This is part twelve in a series of discussions on prayer.
Previously we have discussed the significance of the words of our prayers. Now, let us explore the physical aspects of how we pray.
Our main prayer, which we say three times a day, is called the Amidah – literally “the standing prayer,” because we stand when we say it. We say it facing the Land of Israel and, more specifically, the Temple Mount. So in South Africa, we face north; in America, one faces east; in Israel, one faces the city of Jerusalem; and in Jerusalem itself, one faces the Temple Mount.
(Incidentally, one thing we see from this is the centrality of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Jews throughout the world, regardless of where they are, unite in facing one focal point – the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – three times, every day. This tells us a lot about our claims to the Holy Land, and how deeply embedded it is in Judaism and in Jewish history.)
In addition to the direction we face when we say the Amidah prayer, halacha dictates that we say it standing with our legs together. Standing like this helps us concentrate, but the rationale behind this halacha runs deeper. The Gemara (Berachot, 10b) says: Amar Rabi Yose ben Rabi Chanina, mishum Rabi Elazar ben Yaakov: Hamitpalel tzarich sheyechaven et raglav, “When one prays, he should place his legs together.”
The Jerusalem Talmud discusses the reason for this and offers two opinions. According to one opinion, we stand with legs together to be like the angels, whos legs are together as one. According to the other opinion, we do this to be like the priests in the Temple, who kept their legs together as they walked up the ramp of the altar.
What is the significance of having our legs together, and why does the Gemara say this alludes to the angels and the priests in the Temple?
Demonstrating complete dependence on G-d
As we have discussed previously, the Maharal’s philosophy of prayer is that we are demonstrating the fact that Hashem is Master of the universe and that without Him we have nothing. When we pray to Hashem for what we need, we are acknowledging that everything we have in this world comes from Him.
Standing with our legs together, explains the Maharal, touches upon the fundamentals of prayer in that it symbolises our complete dependence on Hashem. We cannot move when we stand with our legs together; we are stuck. This inability to move our legs and walk around reflects our total dependence on G-d. Thus, says the Maharal, standing with our legs together for the Amidah is a statement to Hashem that we cannot make a single move in this world without Him. All our dreams, aspirations and achievements, everything we want and need, come from Hashem.
Dependence on G-d leads to closeness
There is another aspect as to why we pray with our legs together. The Gemara (Yevamot, 105b) debates how a person should pray. One opinion says that our eyes should look downward, while the other opinion says that our hearts should be cast upwards, towards the heavens. The Gemara goes on to say that there is actually no contradiction: our eyes should be cast downward while our heart should be directed toward the heavens.
How do we understand this?
The Maharal explains that having our eyes cast downward and our heart directed toward the heavens reflect two dimensions of our approach to G-d in prayer. Eyes cast downward represent our standing before G-d, the King of all Kings, as humble servants completely dependent on Him; and having our heart directed toward the heavens represents our being close to Him. We need both aspects, because prayer is not just about being dependent on G-d, but about coming close to Him. Our dependency on G-d is what brings about our closeness to Him; when we realise how much we need Him and that everything in life comes from Him, we are drawn closer to Him.
Thus, there are two aspects to how we pray: One is our complete dependence on Hashem for everything, and the other is our closeness to Him, which is a direct result of our dependence on Him. Having our eyes cast downward and our heart directed toward the heavens represent these two dimensions—eyes cast down in humble submission, but hearts directed toward the heavens, bonding with G-d.
Prayer is about the spiritual bond and connection to Hashem. Standing with our legs together reflects not only the fact that we cannot move without Him and that we are dependent on Him, but the fact that this dependence leads to a spiritual bond with Him.
Investing in our relationship with G-d
This touches upon another passage in the Gemara, which says that when one walks to shul, every step is a mitzvah. In fact, the Gemara says that the more steps one takes, the greater the mitzvah. Therefore one who lives a bit further from the shul increases his mitzvot all the time.
The Maharal asks, why does the Gemara say this specifically about going to shul more than any other mitzvah? He answers that walking to shul is symbolic of our coming closer to G-d. This is one mitzvah whose whole purpose is to draw closer to Hashem, and so the more effort we put in, the closer we become. The further one has to walk, the more one demonstrates commitment to drawing closer to Hashem. And as in any relationship, the more effort we put in, the more the relationship will develop.
This idea is encapsulated in the writings of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, who says that although conventional wisdom maintains that the more you love someone, the more you will give to that person, the truth is just the reverse: the more you give to someone, the more you will come to love that person.
So, too, in our relationship with Hashem: The more effort we put in, the more the relationship will develop. This is why, explains the Maharal, the Gemara says that one who walks further to shul demonstrates a greater love for Hashem. Going to shul, and indeed the whole experience of praying to G-d, is a process of coming closer and closer to Him.
Leaving the world behind as we enter the shul
This explains another passage in the Gemara (Berachot, 8a), which says that ideally a shul should have two entrances, one following the other, so that we should not just walk in from the street, straight into shul. In fact, you will notice that most shuls have a foyer for this very reason.
The Maharal explains the rationale behind this, based on his overall philosophy that prayer is an act of drawing closer to Hashem. There are two parts of drawing closer: One is to remove distraction and the other is to become bonded. Or, in other words, the first is to separate from our surroundings and the second is to come closer to G-d. Hence we have two entrances to the shul: The first is to remove ourselves from the street and the outside world, and the second is to enter the shul and to commit ourselves to connecting with Hashem. This is indeed one of the great challenges of davening – to be able to move beyond our distractions so that we can truly bond with Hashem.
The architecture of the shul, like praying with our legs together, helps us achieve both aspects of prayer – blocking out all other distractions and focusing on bonding with Hashem. The shul is designed in such a way to enable us to think about one thing only – our relationship with Hashem.
This is why the verse referring to the mitzvah of prayer says Ul’ovdo bechol levavchem uvechol nafshechem, “To serve G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Gemara (Ta’anit, 2a) says, Eizo he avodah shebalev? Zu tefilla, “What is the service of the heart? That is prayer.” In his commentary on this Gemara, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that the verse says bechol levavchem, “with all your heart,” because one has to give his or her whole heart. Giving our whole heart means putting aside all other distractions. It also means, says Rav Chaim, being conscious of the fact that the greatest joy in life comes from drawing closer to Hashem. During those moments of prayer, when we are completely devoted and connected to Hashem, we are not thinking about anything else. And even though our prayers, especially our weekday prayers (for on Shabbat we do not make personal requests), are devoted to asking for our daily needs such as earning a living, health and anything else we may need, prayer helps us elevate those needs so that we are not simply requesting them for our own selfish purposes, but for the purpose of serving Hashem properly and making this world a better place.
We have discussed many times how prayer helps us move beyond ourselves and enables us to transcend who we are so that we are not focused solely on achieving our own selfish needs. Ul’ovdo bechol levavchem, to pray to G-d “with all our heart,” really means throwing ourselves completely into it and giving it our all. Rav Chaim Volozhiner quotes a passage from the Gemara which says that when we pray, the words that we say are our “soul.” In prayer, we literally give over our soul in the words that we say. But this is possible only when there is complete devotion on our part.
We live in a world where we are pulled in different directions and are constantly distracted by all the electronic devices and the pressures of life. The challenge of praying today is to block out all of this noise and throw ourselves into our prayer. This is an enormous challenge, but it is also a great opportunity. Amidst the pressurised, fragmented world we have an opportunity to disengage from our preoccupations and pull ourselves together, to be inspired and to come close to Hashem at set times throughout the day.
In his book the Kuzari, Rav Yehuda HaLevi explains that our prayers three times a day are like three meals a day. Throughout the day we run around in all different directions, but we have built-in moments to recharge our spiritual energies. In a certain sense, what Shabbat does for the week in terms of giving us the opportunity to step out of the hectic pace of life and focus on our relationship with G-d, our prayers do for us on a daily basis. They give us a chance to regroup, to be inspired and to be close to Hashem.
Prayer Part XII: How To Stand Before Hashem (Edited Transcript)
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