Recently a five-year-old girl was attending her first bar mitzvah our synagogue. She looked on expectantly as she waited for the service to begin. She saw the Cantor on the bima tuning her guitar. She saw the bar mitzvah boy all dressed up in suit and tie getting fitted with his lapel microphone. She saw Bernie opening the doors of the Ark to check on the Torah scrolls. There was Lisa Olhausen checking the microphones on at the podiums to make sure they were working properly. As I walked into the sanctuary, I turned to the grandfather and wished him a Shabbat Shalom. I smiled at his granddaughter. As I turned to leave, I heard the granddaughter say to her grandfather, “Is he going to be in the show too?”
There is something of the theater in our worship services. There is the raised platform – a stage in the theatrical world, a “bima” in our worship. There is the “audience”. There is music. There is drama. There is choreography. It is part of that choreography that I want to teach about tonight.
I am frequently asked why Jews move when we pray. At least in some communities, “shuckling” or rocking back and forth as we recite prayers, is a feature of Jewish worship. I believe is likely that people began naturally swaying as a response to the rhythm of the prayers they were reciting when they were standing up. The 12th century Spanish sage Yehudah HaLevi writes that the custom arose because of the lack of prayer books. According to his theory, worshippers would lay one large prayer book on the ground, then take turns bending over it to read a passage. The practice has also been connected to two verses in scriptures. The first is from Psalms. “Kol Atsmotai Tomarnah Mi Chamocha” – all of the bones of my body cry out ‘Who is Like Unto You, G-d….” Not only our mouths move when we pray, but our entire body prays to G-d. Every fiber of our being is involved in our worship. Alternatively there is this verse is from Proverbs. “The soul is the candle of G-d.” Just as a candle flickers on the wick, so our soul causes our body to move as it attempts to break free of the body and ascend on high during worship.
Most of us here, however, do not shuckle. We may have seen shuckling when we have attended an Orthodox synagogue, or seen a movie featuring Orthodox characters, but most of us don’t do this when we pray. In fact, when I was in seminary one of my fellow students had an internship at a Reform synagogue. During prayer, he began shuckling. He was told by the members of the congregation, in no uncertain terms, that this was inappropriate in their synagogue. It made other worshippers feel uncomfortable. So, be careful where you shuckle, if you shuckle at all.
There are movements, however, that are part of our worship here at CBS. We take three steps back from the ark when begin the Amidah, and then move forward three steps. At the conclusion of the Amidah, we take three steps backwards, and bow forward, then to the right and to the left, as we recite “Oseh Shalom”. What is that about? Where does this custom originate, and what does it is its significance for us?
The Talmud relates that on Yom Kippur the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the sacred space in front of the ark, and offer incense. When he exited that room, he would walk backwards. This became the appropriate way for a student to leave his teacher. The Talmud tells us that when R’ Elazar wished to depart from his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, he would walk backwards until his teacher could not see him turn around. The Talmud then teaches, “One who has prayed the Amidah should take three steps backward, and afterward say, “Shalom”.
When we recite the Amidah, which is the set of prayers to which our services build, it is as if we are standing directly in the Presence of G-d. We are the priest, offering our sacrifices to G-d on the altar. We take three steps backward, to prepare ourselves for the moment, and then three steps forward, to come before “The Throne” as it were. When we conclude our prayers, we take three steps backward, bow, and turn to the right and the left. Our turning to the right at the left – and reciting the “Oseh Shalom” represents our return to the normal world. We symbolically say “Shalom” to the people on our right and the people on our left. This distinguishes between the holy place where we were standing, and the mundane spot where we stand now.
Why three steps, and not two or four? For this we can point to the Book of Deuteronomy, which describes Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai. It says that Moses encountered “darkness, clouds and fog”. These were the three “gates” that Moses went through. When Moses exited, he went through the same three gates. Therefore, when we depart from G-d, we take three steps backward.
In reality, our bones do not cry out when we pray. In reality, our souls do not cling to our bodies like a flame to the wick of a candle. In reality, G-d does not sit on a Throne above our ark. Yet we use these metaphors to express our connection to G-d. We are drawn to use our creative powers to articulate our connection to the ineffable, of the mystery of the Divine. Sometimes our most profound religious experiences require acts of imagination.