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.