Standing Before God

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            In the last session, we saw how prayer is the form that service of God takes. When one turns to God to fulfill all of one's needs, showing total dependence on Him, one enters, at the very same time, both the service of God and human freedom. If one is dependent only on He who cannot possibly exploit you, because He has no personal needs to be achieved through you, then one is independent of all natural exploitation. On the contrary, God's needs from you are that you develop your maximum potential to be like Him, to perfect yourself. The turning towards God, accepting all He can offer, His good and ideals, is the movement of prayer.

            This week, I would like to examine the laws and structure of the "shemoneh esrei," the eighteen-part central prayer of the daily service.

A. How To Pray

            The Rambam, in ch. 4 of Hilkhot Tefila (The Laws of Prayer), lists 5 laws that are essential to prayer. (Halakhically, that means that if you are unable to fulfill them, you should not pray):

1. "Taharat yadayim" (purity of the hands) - "One should wash one's hands up to the wrists in water before praying.... If he was on the road and the time to pray approached, but there was no water, and there was up to four kilometers between him and the water, he should go to the place of the water, wash, and then pray. If the distance were greater, he should clean his hands on stones, sand, or a beam, and then pray."

2. "Kisui erva" (covering one's body) - "Even though he has covered the private parts of his body (which is sufficient for the reading of the shema), he should not pray until he has covered his heart."

3. "Taharat makom ha-tefila" (purity of location) - "One may not pray where there is filth, nor in the bathhouse, bathroom, garbage dump, or any place that is not known to be clean, unless he has checked it.... One who prayed and (afterwards) found excrement in the vicinity, since he has sinned by not checking before praying, he must repeat the prayer in a clean place. If he was praying and saw excrement in front of him, if he can move away so that it will be two meters behind him, he should do so. Otherwise, he should distance himself to the side of it. If he cannot, he should stop."

4. "Devarim ha-chofzim" (Disturbances) - "One who has a need to relieve himself should not pray.... One should check oneself well (to be free of) spit or phlegm or any other thing that will disturb, and only afterwards pray. One who yawns, burps, or sneezes voluntarily during prayer is reprehensible."

5. "Kavanat halev" (mental intention) - "Prayer without intention is not prayer. One who prays without intention must repeat his prayer. If he sees that his mind is disturbed and his heart bothered, it is FORBIDDEN for him to pray until he settles his mind. Therefore one who comes in from the road, and he is weary or upset is forbidden to pray until his mind is settled.... What is intention? - He should empty his heart (mind) of all thoughts and see himself as standing before the Presence (of God). Therefore one must sit a bit before prayer to direct one's heart and afterwards pray calmly, supplicatingly. The prayers should not be like a burden that is thrown off and then one goes away. Therefore one must wait a bit after the prayers, and only then take leave."

            What is the combined effect of these halakhot? Tefila (prayer) is something which one does only after careful preparation. One's body, one's clothes, one's place, finally one's heart, must be carefully cleansed (purified, in the Rambam's term) before one begins to speak with God. I think the key is in a phrase the Rambam used in the last section - one should see oneself as standing before the "Shechina" (Presence of God). What does this name of God mean?

            The verb "SChN" means "to dwell." The "Shechina" is the name given to God as dwelling within the world, the presence of God within us. In the Torah, when the Jews received the Torah and built the tabernacle, the "Glory" of God came to "dwell" - shachan - on it. The term does not refer to the power of God as evinced in nature, but to the home that the single individual makes for God through his actions. Until the Jews built the desert tabernacle, there was no Shechina in the world. In the case of tefila, by defining the mandatory aspects of tefila as deriving from the sense of standing before the Shechina, the Rambam is telling us that prayer transforms the praying individual. Whatever he has to say, it is to the Presence of God that dwells within him. By approaching God in prayer and service, man becomes the base for the Shechina. This requires him to prepare himself. Notice the terms used by the Rambam in defining these laws - twice he used the phrase "tahara" (purification) to indicate what is, after all is said and done, no more than a physical cleansing. The requirement is not to be clean, but to be pure, not just in body but in location as well. You, the place in which you stand, becomes for a short time the site of the Shechina - and that TRANSFORMATION of the natural requires purification, preparation, both outward and inward. The praying individual is a different person than the natural man. He must purify his body and surroundings, separate himself from the natural distractions of his body, and most importantly, settle his heart and mind, and open himself to the presence of God. The intention the Rambam refers to here is not that one should mean what one says - that goes without question. He does not write that one should pay attention to the meaning of the words, but that one should see himself as standing before the Shechina.

            A great religious principle of Judaism is being stated here. Where is God found, in this world? He is found wherever man makes a place for Him. If you clear your heart and purify it to be a seat for the Presence of God, then it is, almost by definition. There seems to be a logically circular argument here. One should imagine that one is standing in the presence of the Shechina. But is that in fact the case? Yes - if one prays with intention (kavana - and the kavana is that one is standing in the presence of God), then one is indeed in the presence of God. The reason is simple. A soul prepared and directed toward God is a holy soul. That is the very presence of God, and God finds no better place in this world.

            Let us continue to the next chapter in the Rambam. Chapter 5 lists eight things that one "should be careful to do, but if it is difficult or impossible, or if one neglected them, they are not essential (one has fulfilled the mitzva of prayer):

1. Standing;

2. Facing the direction of the temple in Jerusalem - outside of the Land of Israel, one faces the Land; within the borders of the Land, one faces Jerusalem; within Jerusalem, one faces the Temple. (The Rambam adds that if you do not know which direction to face, you should direct your heart to the Shechina. Other opinions maintained that one should direct one's heart toward Jerusalem).

3. "Tikkun ha-guf" (Proper posture) - both feet together, his eyes lowered "as if he is looking at the earth, but his heart turned upwards as though he were standing in heaven. He should place his hands locked together on his heart, the right over the left (this last requirement is generally not observed today), and stand like a servant before his master, with awe, fear, and trepidation."

4. Tikkun ha-malbush" (Proper attire) - one should dress in a dignified manner. The Rambam mentions as improper attire "bareheaded, nor barefoot, if the custom in his place is not to appear before important people barefooted."

5. "Tikkun ha-makom" (Proper location) - One should be in a low place, facing the wall. If there are windows, they should be open (meaning not shuttered) in the direction of Jerusalem. One should not pray on a platform or on a ladder.

6. Proper voice - The prayer should be silent but enunciated, neither out loud nor merely mental.

7. Bowing - in five places - at the beginning and end of the first blessing, the beginning and end of the seventeenth (modim), and at the conclusion, one bows from the waist (the custom is to first bend the knee and then bow from the waist).

8. Prostration - After finishing the shemoneh esrei, one sits and prostrates himself, face to the ground, and adds supplications, as one wishes. (We discussed last week the formal, defined nature of halakhic tefila. This section is meant to be the personal, undefined part. As often happens, the prayerbook codifies this as well, but in principle, this is the place for open-hearted creativity, supplication, the outpouring of the individual heart). This is called "tachanun," and according to the Rambam is not an addendum to tefila but an integral requirement of it.

            What is the difference between this list and the preceding one? Many of these categories parallel those of the earlier chapter - care of the body, of clothes, of the place, for instance. Notice that in those cases, the Rambam uses a different word, substituting "tikkun" (care) instead of "tahara" (purification). I think the unifying theme of this chapter is indicated in the words I quoted in number 3 - he should "stand like a servant before his master, with awe, fear, and trepidation." All these laws derive from a definition of prayer as "standing before the King." One dresses well, as is the custom "when appearing before important people," stands erect, at attention, feet together, in a proper place, not high where one might be subject to arrogance. Part of Jewish prayer is a requirement to bow, to humble oneself, to show respect. Prayer is service, as a servant to his master.

            There is a subtle difference between the ideas - standing before the Shechina and standing before the King. In the first case the emphasis is on oneself, the requirement is to purify oneself; to be, as I defined it, transformed. In the second case, the emphasis is outward, on having the proper attitude towards God, an attitude of reverence and submissiveness. The first requires one to change, to be transformed, to transcend the natural. The second requires one to SHOW a proper attitude. The "master" is outside the "servant." The servant is entering the master's presence. The Shechina, on the other hand, is within me, resting on me.

            Taking as one example the case of proper clothing; in the first chapter the requirement is to use one's clothes to distinguish between the lower natural part of man and that which is being directed towards God; in the second there is a formal requirement to dress in a manner which, in THE SOCIAL CONTEXT, shows respect and honor.

            Given the important difference that the first chapter lists ESSENTIAL requirements and the second requirements that are only halakhic recommendations, these two chapters together provide the framework for halakhic tefila. We, the servants of God, thrice daily stand before Him, in awe and fear, and in so doing, we create a place within ourselves for the indwelling of the Shechina in the world. If last week I tried to explain how service of God is liberation, today we can see how service of God does not lead to the nullification of man, but to his transformation into the base, the carriage, for the sacred presence in the world.

B. What To Say

            In the space that is left, I wish to quickly sketch the structure of the shemoneh esrei, as recited daily.

            Shemoneh esrei means "eighteen." The tefila is called shemoneh esrei because it consists of nineteen blessings. (Luckily, I do not have a "logic-checker" installed on my word-processor, or that sentence would have been automatically corrected).

            Actually, originally (meaning about nineteen hundred years ago) there were only eighteen blessings in the shemoneh esrei. A nineteenth one (number twelve in the present order) was added later, but the name stuck. This is not even the "official name," - which just goes to show what a tradition-minded people we are - it was not worth changing the name just for two thousand years!

            These blessings are divided into three parts. The first three blessings are "praise." This means that we are not yet asking for anything - just addressing ourselves to God. You might say that this part consists of "introductions" - we say who God is, and by implication ("Our God, the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob"), who we are (the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). The middle thirteen blessings consist of requests, for all those things that are important to our existence, both spiritual and physical, individual and national. The last three blessings are defined as thanksgiving - if you ask and have received (and we always have received), we should give thanks.

            Of these last three, only the second is explicitly an expression of gratitude - the first one is a request that our prayer be acceptable to God as a temple sacrifice, and the last one is a prayer for the blessing of peace. Apparently, these two themes are not considered personal requests. We have asked to receive - now we turn back to God and ask that what we have prayed be a fitting service in His eyes. This is not a request that He grant our demands, but that the fact that we have prayed and requested be indeed a service of God and not only a means to fulfill our pressing needs. The final request, peace, is not meant as a request for a specific political solution, but that the tefila be a vehicle for the continued presence of God, the Shechina, among us. The last line of the prayer (right after the conclusion of the nineteenth blessing) is "Oseh shalom bimromav..." - He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us. Peace is the state of heaven, of purity and unity. It is the seal of our prayers. Giving peace (shalom) and receiving peace is the way Jews greet and take leave of each other, and of God. In fact, the Sages say that Shalom is the name of God. If one has been standing in the presence of the King, and standing in the presence of the Shechina, one takes one's leave with the word "shalom" on one's lips. That is what you take with you when you return to the natural world, ruled by God's decrees of natural law and science, a world of strife and conflict. The root of "shalom" is ShLM - meaning whole, complete. A request for completeness is a request for Godliness, a request that we continue being Godly even when we return to the natural.

            This is the way this last verse is said:

1.         On the words, "He Who makes peace in His heights," one bows and takes three steps             backwards (while bowing);

2.         "May he make peace upon us" - one turns, still bowed, to the left;

3.         "And on all Israel" - one turns to the right;

4.         "And we say, amen" - you rise;

5.         One waits two seconds and RETURNS the three steps forward to the original position. Now the shemoneh esrei is over.