Jewish prayers are meant to invoke a wide variety of images, emotions, ideas, and experiences – including experiences that the worship has never had. Jewish prayer is a multi-sensory experience: it involves music and movement, sight and sound, poetry and choreography.
The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) begins with a mishnah that asks when the Shema should be recited in the evening, launching a lengthy discussion about how we define evening, night, and morning. The conversation continues for pages. And then, quite abruptly, another idea is introduced: One who stands and prays must line up his legs. In others, one should stand erect with his/her feet together, while praying. In reality, Jews tend to sway rhythmically while praying, both because the Hebrew of the prayers themselves has a beautiful poetic cadence and because, after all, who can stand still for very long? (Certainly not me.) Nonetheless, I can appreciate that the ideal is to stand respectfully, reflecting the dignity of the activity, and respect for God and the community.
The Sages go further. They want us to have an image of who we are when we stand with our legs together in prayer.
One who stands and prays must line up his legs.R. Levi and R. Shimon offer us two images: we are like angels in heaven praising God and basking in the divine glow of God’s holiness, or we are like the priests in the temple who ascended the altar to offer sacrifices that assured Israel’s well being and daily renewed the people’s relationship with their God. We might begin by asking why we need these images at all. Isn’t it enough to be a respectful human being in covenant with God? In his Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts a classic:
Two Amoraim [disagree about how to understand this]: R. Levi and R. Shimon. One says like angels, and one says like priests.
The one who says like priests [supports his position by citing] You shall not ascend My altar with stairs [so that your nakedness should not be exposed over it] (Exodus 20:23) – that [the priests] would walk heel next to the big toe, and the big toe next to the heel. And the one who says like angels [supports his position by citing] And their [four] legs were a [or: one] straight leg (Ezekiel 1:7). R. Chanina bar And’rei [said] in the name of R. Shmuel bar Sutar: The angels do not have knees. What is the proof? I approached one of those standing (Daniel 7:16) – “standing” [means always standing].
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"Do I need to be other than who I am? Isn’t the goal to become my true self? Isn’t the goal of prayer to enable me to search within myself – my true self – to find God, the divine spark within? Isn’t daily prayer (and even more so, Shabbat) a pause in our lives to reclaim our true selves?
For the Rabbis, an even higher goal seems to be to take on the identities of the angels in heaven and the kohanim (priests) who ministered in the Temple. Why angels or priests?
Angels are divine creatures who do only, and exclusively, God’s will. They can do nothing else. Their entire existence is devoted to pure worship of, and service to, God. In a sense, our lives can model that too, in that the work we do to sustain our families, communities, and the world is service to God; the love we lavish on others is service to God; the pleasure we take in our lives and in this world reflects gratitude to God. But it’s not the same as being an angel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves – or truly try to be – angels.
Priests are a special family within Israel ordained to preserve the connection between God and Israel through sacrifices. Sacrifices serve to unify the nation, and are made in response to what Israel understands to be God’s will. They are an act of obedience, but also spiritual uplift. To be a priest is to stand as close to God (figuratively) as a human can stand, representing Israel to God, and God to Israel. So for the duration of our prayers, we can imagine ourselves as the offspring of Aaron – priests.
For the Rabbis, becoming in your mind an angel or a priest was elevating, ennobling, inspiring. For me, it is much too far a stretch. I am more moved by Zusya’s revelation that his purpose was to become Zusya – the very best version of himself he was capable of becoming. For me, the model of angel or priest is a reminder that I am more than I often think I am, and that thinking I can be more will help me make that a reality. When I was newly ordained and faced particularly difficult situations (the death of a child, a vigil at a deathbed, people’s deep emotional pain) I usually thought, “Don’t they realize that I’m nobody? Don’t they know I’m just a kid?” But in their faces I saw not only trust, but more importantly the acute need that I be the rabbi they required at that moment – and that was enough for me to propel me to become just that rabbi.
I began by recounting my first experience with Visual Tfilah, and said that for me, there is a world of difference between an image and the reality. The notion of becoming an angel or a priest does not move me, but the underlying message that there is more to me than I recognize, and that prayer is way of tapping into it, inspires me to be the Zusya within.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman