Three Steps Forward

The three small steps taken before every Shemona Esrei (Shulchan Aruch. O.C.95.1 Rema) contain some inspiring thoughts designed to put us in a unique state of mind, and direct the way in which we start to engage in prayer itself. Unlike the three steps on finishing a tefilla, those at the start have no source in the Talmud, or Rambam or the author of the Shulchan Aruch. However, in its source in Minhagei Ashkenaz there is a profound idea expressed in this connection.

A simple explanation for these steps would be as follows: The three small steps after completing the tefilla are clearly a respectful way to disengage from standing in the Presence of Hashem, and re-enter the human material world (Bavli Yoma 53b); and the corollary would be that the three steps prior to tefilla express the desire to ‘walk away’ from this-worldly concerns, and enter the Presence of Hashem. Stepping in and out of spiritually different domains.

However, there is a fascinating source which suggests that these steps indicate something about the correct state of mind and soul which is generated by tefilla.

The Torah describes some tefillot in detail, and clearly this is in order to teach us how we are able to engage in the tefilla experience itself. One of the most dramatic and thought provoking prayers is in Bereishit (Ch.18) where Avraham prays to avert the destruction on Sodom.

Even though Sodom represents the antithesis of everything that Avraham stood for, nevertheless Avraham was concerned for the future well being of the world and viewed even Sodom as potentially salvageable. This is the ‘ayin tovah’ which Chazal ask us to learn from Avraham (Pirkei Avot Ch.5). But more radical than this, is the idea that God does not want us to passively and fatalistically accept the events that we see in this world. He wants us to take responsibility for the Tikkun HaOlam and pray for it to be a better and different world.

At the very first moment of this great tefilla of Avraham the Torah uses an interesting word to describe his initial engagement in prayer; ‘vayigash’ (18.23) ‘he stepped forward’. Rashi cites Chazal that this is a key word which is found in three places in the Tanach, each with a different nuanced meaning.

The most famous use of this word is that of Yehudah stepping forward to resolve the impasse with the viceroy of Egypt, who was Joseph in disguise. In Bereishit (44.18) Yehuda steps forward in a last moment attempt to make an offer of appeasement, claim extenuating circumstances, and ask that the viceroy should grant forgiveness and mercy for his brother Benjamin.

Another use of this exact word is found where Yoav, King David’s Chief of Staff, steps forward to engage in battle against Amon (Shmuel II. 10.13).

Finally Rashi quotes the reference to Eliyahu the Prophet (melachim I. 18.36) where this word is used to introduce a moment of an amazing tefilla, standing in the Presence of Hashem in petition and request for help to counter the spread of paganism in Israel and to be able to demonstrate clearly the Hand of God on Mount Carmel.

The Rokeach (Rabbi Elazar Ben Yehuda of Worms 12th cent) suggests that this triple appearance of the word ‘vayigash’ contains an important message that any person who ‘steps forward’ to engage in prayer should be aware of, as they are three dimensions of tefilla itself.

Firstly, like Yehuda, an awareness that our lives are imperfect and misdeeds have been committed; and therefore we are asking for forgiveness and consideration of difficult circumstances, to appease and avert any strict judgement.

Secondly, like Eliyahu, to ask for strength and ability to create a Kiddush Hashem and demonstrate the Presence of God in every aspect of our world.

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, we see Avraham ‘doing battle’ with God, in the sense of ‘asking God to change His mind’! as mentioned above, this is the opposite of fatalism and it’s passive acceptance of God’s will.

This is of course a complicated philosophical concept, but is fundamental to a Torah view of the role of Mankind as active partners with God in the destiny of the world. Without this idea, for instance, when faced with a loved one with an illness or poverty, we would simply have to accept passively that this was the will of God, and could not pray for his or her recovery or success.

I believe that here lies a formula for our tefilla from Rabbi Elazar of 850 years ago. The power and depth of tefilla draws from these ideas which are three components of prayer. Firstly like Yehuda a promise of greater personal dedication in the future as an offer of appeasement for past imperfections. Secondly like Yoav going to ‘battle’ to change the world into a better place in so many ways. Thirdly like Eliyahu HaNavie asking for help to create a Kiddush Hashem and enable us to spread some Light in our world.

The depth and meaning to these three small steps is awesome, and if one is able to have moments of reflection and mindfulness before tefilla, these steps show the way.

Sefirat Ha-Omer
The process of counting days from Pesach to Shavuot has profound significance in Jewish thought.
This finds its expression in the pasuk from Tehillim 90.12 which reads:
למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה
“teach us to count our days and it will bring us a heart of wisdom”.
What is the nature of this wisdom that can be created by this counting process?

There are several ideas which come together to explain this process.
1. The symbolism of the chametz which is forbidden on Pesach is clearly referred to in Talmud Bavli Berachot 17a as corresponding to the materialism of human nature, the drive for wealth and power, self gratification and hedonism, and social recognition. All these are natural elements of human nature but are in opposition to spiritual aspirations. Following this idea, the requirement to destroy and disown all traces of chametz expresses the idea of totally destroying these aspects of life.

2. In contrast we find that at the completion of the counting when we celebrate Shavuot, the Temple service uniquely revolves around the “shtei ha-lechem” – the two loaves of real bread. If chametz symbolises the materialistic side of human nature as mentioned above, it is curious that on this day commemorating The Revelation at Sinai we should be celebrating by giving priority to the bread which endorses our materialistic drives.

3. The Mishna at the end of massechet Berachot contains the key to this puzzle. The Mishna learns that there is a word which appears in the daily Shema (Devarim 6.5) in which we speak about “to love God with all your heart” which should have been written
ואהבת את ה אלוקיך בכל לבך
But in fact it is written with two letters ‘beis’
בכל לבבך
And the Mishna understands that this means that a person is required to love God with BOTH the spiritual AND the material sides of human nature, – both the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. This is often understood to mean that one serves God by suppressing and negating the yesterday ha-ra, but there is also a more profound meaning, which is found in the writings of the Rambam.

4. Maimonides (Mishne Torah. Hilchot Deot Ch.3.)
שמא יאמר האדם הואיל והקנאה והתאוה והכבוד וכיוצא בהם דרך רעה הן…. אפרוש מהן ביותר והתרחק לצד האחרון… כגון כהני העכו׳ם… גם זה דרך רעה היא ואסור לילך בה. המהלך בדרך זו נקרא חוטא.

“A person might say that since the dangers of jealousy lust and fame are so great I will abandon this life totally and live as an ascetic like the pagan priests and monks, -this is a bad way of life and it is forbidden to do so. Such a person is called a sinner.”
Rambam continues to explain that the correct approach is to live a life fully engaged in the material world, but making sure that all material goods and drives are used for spiritual purposes, and that a person controls this materialism carefully and harnesses it for the goals of the Torah.

5. We can now put the pieces together and see a deeper meaning in the counting of the days of the Omer. Once a year on Pesach we totally destroy the chametz to show we are in control of the material world and are able to disown it completely. However, this is the crucial point, it is not the goal of the Torah to totally negate these material drives and aspirations, as the Rambam wrote. Over the course of the 49 days we can slowly bit by bit reintroduce the ‘chametz’ into our lives, knowing that it will not take over our life, rather it can be used correctly for the purposes of the Torah, finally reaching Shavuot where we can have full chametz bread in the Temple, and show that we can utilise all the material goods of the world for the good, and without being overtaken by these desires.

6. This idea is also a key to a different question. Why would this counting be called ‘Omer’? The word Omer is generally assumed to be simply a measure, a kilo, like the kezayit or kebeitzah of the Halacha, but why use that as the name of this mitzvah? The answer is that we find in the Torah that the same word is used also differently, as a verb, and it means ‘to subjugate or enslave’ another person. (see for instance Devarim 21.14 & 24.7). The commentary ‘ha-kesav ve-hakabbalah’ makes this connection (Vayikra 23.11) and says that the word Omer is actually from this meaning, that we are demonstrating our abilities. to subjugate all our material desires and assets to the spiritual purposes of the Torah. This fits exactly the meaning described above to the process of the counting days and increasing our ability to subjugate and harness all our material life for correct goals.

7. If we are correct that the wisdom mentioned in the opening verse from Tehillim describes the application of the Mishna above, of how to use all our physical as well as spiritual feelings for the Torah, it is also clear why it says
לבב חכמה
Instead of
לב חכמה
Since it is referring to that pasuk in the Shema which is explained in the Mishna.