אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ
Before beginning our silent prayer, we take 3 steps back & then 3 steps forward.
This is based on the word va’yigash (ויגש), confrontation, which is found 3 times in the Torah.
The revelation of confrontation first requires stepping back.
Before presence there is absence.
The ideal standard for prayer is that we are supposed to face the direction of Jerusalem. But when you’re not sure which way Jerusalem is, direct your heart to heaven and that counts just as much. When you know which way holiness is, head that way. When we lost our way and get disoriented, it’s as simple as turning our hearts to heaven. In the three steps we take back then forward, we can feel stuck, unable to move forward, struggling or overwhelmed. We’re right back where we started, but we are tuned in now, turned to God, and our hearts are attuned.
We are supposed to keep our legs parallel for the duration of the Amida. This is popularly believed to imitate the angels, but it is a little odd to use such distinctly physical imagery for non-physical entities. The Rashba explains that keeping our legs locked demonstrates that we are stuck, totally helpless, and our belief that we can only move with God’s permission
Before getting into complicated things, it’s essential to establish foundational first principles. One of the most essential tools to navigating our lives and understanding anything seriously is context, or perspective. Very few things merit an absolute response; far more often, life is complex, and so in some important respect, things can only be understood relative to their context. So for example, our ancestor Avraham’s defining feature was his kindness; so to put someone like that in the hottest of the Akeida presents a serious challenge. The challenge isn’t in instructing someone to sacrifice their child; it’s giving that instruction to someone like Avraham. Giving that instruction to cult leaders in the Ancient Near East isn’t a challenge at all – that’s a regular Tuesday. Context influences and guides our course of action.
There’s lots of things we need to contextualize in our prayer. Far more than what to say, we must contextualize who and where we are, Whom we are addressing, and what we think we are trying to accomplish.
אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ
Hashem, open my lips, and my mouth will tell your praises
It’s a foundational tenet of monotheism that there is one deity, the absolute and indivisible One God- Hashem Echad. The existence of God is enormously consequential to how we experience life in multiple ways, but in particular, it means there exists a higher authority, and that our lives unfold within the context of larger unseen forces working towards their own purpose in the universe, far beyond our comprehension. It means our lives play out on a gigantic canvas, and that we matter
The Ramchal explains that it is simply and entirely beyond us to grasp God as God is; but what we can understand is how we experience God’s interactions. So although there is one God, God also has lots of names, with each name describing a particular aspect or expression of God as experienced by humans in a given moment. But what we experience isn’t exactly what it is, only what it’s sort of like; when we feel anger or pride, they are separate and distinct traits, but God isn’t human, so doesn’t experience emotions the way humans do. God isn’t moody or volatile, God doesn’t change.
So while different expressions or interactions come from different places in humans, in God they somehow originate from the same place, so much so that the Tachanun prayer quotes from Tehilim, berogez rachem tizkor – In anger, remember compassion. This would be laughable to say to an angry person, an oxymoron almost, and yet it’s something we can ask God for, to remember compassion amidst anger. Because for God, they come from the same place.
In multiple places the Torah asks us to be like God:
Acharei hashem telechu
It’s one of the broadest and all encompassing guiding principles of Judaism, following God’s ways; imitation dei. God visited Avraham when he was sick, so we should visit the sick. God buried Moshe, so we should bury the dead. God is kind and merciful, we should be kind and merciful. But while aspirational and noble, it doesn’t quite paint the full picture. God is angry and jealous at times, so maybe we should get angry and jealous at times! The Ran explains that we can’t emulate God’s anger or jealousy, because they are simultaneously imbued with love and compassion in a way we cannot emulate; we can only emulate what we can grasp. We know what love and compassion look and feel like, so those are the ones we copy.
YHVH means eternal being, and ELKM means the all powerful. Both are a little remote from our daily lived experience, but ADNY is the simplest – mastery. When Avraham went to greet his three guests, he showed them great deference and reverence, calling them his masters – XYZ. Rashi explains that mastery has a sacred aspect and a profane aspect, and different applications can be illuminating in different contexts. Are we slaves to master of the universe? It doesn’t really feel that way. What’s compelling you to be observant right this minute? What will happen if you stop? If we can stop being observant right now, and not get struck by lightning or cancer, are we really enslaved? But if the sacred aspect is remote, the profane aspect certainly isn’t. Do we actually feel there is an external force that influences our lives? That universal access point is ADNY. It’s the most common usage, and also the most genuine that exists in the sacred and the profane. Before understanding how to engage with God, the Almighty Master and Creator of the universe, we intuitively understand how to relate to God the master of health, the master of children, the master of business. ADNY.
The simple meaning is lips, but it also means boundaries – the frogs breached the Sefas hayeor. Our lips are the threshold that divides the interior body from the exterior, and is the only external body part of our body made of the inside of our bodies – try running your tongue through your cheek and across your lips – your lips are a part of your mouth, not your skin. As the threshold between interior and exterior, our lips control and convey what what is happening inside – or not. When our lips are closed, they form a rigid boundary, and there is no telling what the person is thinking or experiencing; you are limited to what’s happening facially and superficially, at the surface. Perhaps we simply open our prayer by asking that our own lips not be boundaries to what we’d like to say. Sefasai
But maybe there’s more to it than that. Let’s imagine an educated and accomplished banker or lawyer, well heeled and successful. If the market collapses, and unemployment skyrockets, firms shut down and lay people off. Like everyone else, this poor man loses his job, and there’s no jobs to be had. But he hears the local municipality is hiring trash pickers. He shows up to the interview, gets the job, and a nice high visibility uniform and gets a nice trash grabbing tool so he doesn’t have to bend down each time. Content that at least he has a job, and conscious that he’s better off than most, he does it for a week. He takes a break, and stands by the road the sidewalk, leaning by a lamppost, watching the cars go by. A few minutes go by, and suddenly, a car is speeding way too close to the curb, and our friend has to leap out the way to avoid getting injured. He picks himself up, and dusts his uniform, when, to his dismay, he sees his trash picker lying a few feet away, smashed to pieces in the commotion. In utter despair, the man falls to his knees, and screams through tears with a heartrending look to the heavens, “Come on God! Can I catch a break seriously!? Please, please God, just help me fix my trash picker!”
The story is quite obviously absurd. God can fix your trash picker; but God can get you a new one, or help you find another job, or turn the entire economy around from depression to boom times. But the joke’s on us because, we all make this exact mistake, and we make it all the time! We have lists of things we think we want, all the outcomes we’re banking on, and every single one of those is a boundary we are putting up.
If you’ve ever seen a horse and carriage on the street, you’ll notice the horse’s harnesses always have blinders. These blinders are critical for road safety; they reducing visual distractions from the horse’s peripheral vision, enhancing the horse’s concentration and focus on the road straight ahead. Sometimes it’s imperative to be focussed on the task ahead, but it’s not universally applicable. But there are plenty of times you need to take the blinders off so you can think and see bigger than the problem! In our prayers every morning, we say pokeach ivrim, and it’s about so much more than physical sight. It’s about perspective; mental and emotional sight as well. When we put up our own mental blinders and boundaries, we restrict ourselves from ever thinking bigger than the problem right ahead – Sefasai
When your uncle asks what you want for your birthday, is the right answer a pizza or a Ferrari? The right answer would depend on so many things, including how wealthy your uncle is, and how generous he is. When asked what you want for your birthday, a Ferrari is the wrong answer, because the giver is limited. But God the giver isn’t limited; we are.
If God were a genie in a magic lamp granting you three wishes, it’s the same effort to grant a wish for a Porsche as a wish for a potato. Now, God isn’t a genie, and God isn’t Santa Claus. But the point is, the difference between a Porsche and a Potato isn’t in the giver; it’s in the recipient, in us, specifically in our boundaries, and all the things holding us back – Sefasai tiftach
If we open ourselves up to the notion of taking down our boundaries, we’ll find that the bounds are quite literally endless. The Gemara teaches that even when the executioner’s sword is on your neck, you still mustn’t give up hope that somehow things will turn around; when Moshe faced execution under Pharaoh, his neck turned miraculously hardened like stone. – Sefasai tiftach
וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ – and my mouth will tell your praises
Like any language, there’s many ways to say something, and the word we use to describe the speech also describes something about the way it is said – like speaking, shouting, whispering. The word used for the speaking here is a harsh form of speaking, like telling an uncomfortable truth. Rashi on Ko sagid says dvarim kashim kgidim. It’s speech that has a certain sense of harshness to it. But the harshness isn’t directed at God; it’s at ourselves.
There are times we are little too feel-good about God and religion (“Oh, you know why your wife has cancer and you lost your job? Because Hashem loves you!”). Sometimes, the truth and reality are harsh; they don’t always feel so good. It’s a harsh truth that God is ADNY, the master, and ADNY, my master. It is painful to admit that we are not completely in control, and that actually, we are almost entirely helpless.
Anyone with a smidge of self-awareness and intellectual honesty will readily admit that timing and luck played enormous roles in their successes. But the inverse is true as well; when we hear that someone loses their sanity, or something tragic happens, is it something they did to themselves? Does anyone seriously think there is a 1:1 linearity between people suffering and their sins? You’d have to be have to be incredibly cruel or immature to think so. They are called the less fortunate for good reason – it’s not a euphemism.
It does not feel good to lack control, and we develop sophisticated mental models to provide the illusion of feeling in control of our lives. Not being in control is something that happens to others! Someone else gets sick, someone else’s business is struggling, someone else’s marriage is facing difficulties… The harsh truth is targeted at ourselves who think we have it together, because your life is only ever one phone call away from going completely off the rails.
It takes nothing to ruin our health. The first substantive Bracha of the day for most of us is probably Asher yatzar. The Bracha articulates clearly and concisely that it takes almost nothing to wreck our health. It takes almost nothing to get into a deadly car wreck. Every time we face oncoming traffic, how do we know the driver across the painted stripe won’t get a surprise text message, and be distracted for the one moment he needs to adjust the wheel by half a degree to avoid a collision? Of course, if we lived that way, we’d lose our minds – you’d never let your family leave the house! But if we peel back the illusion, we recognize how the entire canvas of our lives and everybody we love hangs on very fine threads, and they can unravel in a second.
The grip you have on your life is a shorthand illusion you need to function properly, but it’s not the full picture. The world is a big and wild place; we cannot tame it, and we cannot tame God. We live in a complex and non-linear world, and it’s scary and painful to admit we’re not in control. – Ufi yagid
But once we have that orientation, the first thing we do after acknowledging our place and standing in the cosmos is to bow down
To be clear, humans are not nothing. Far from it. But we are not the self important demigods we make ourselves out to be either. We are quite puny, even in physical terms of space and time, which requires a painful and shocking cognitive shift in awareness
You are a delicate bag of organic matter on a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void of an incomprehensibly enormous universe, and all the things we love and cherish live equally tiny existences in the cosmos, and yet the tiniest thing could knock over your entire universe – Ufi yagid
Pale blue dot
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
— Carl Sagan
As we start the Amida, we take three steps back and then take steps forward, returning to our starting point. It might symbolize stepping away from the domain of the profane and stepping into the domain of the sacred. The Rashba explains that keeping our legs locked demonstrates that we can only move with God’s permission, and perhaps taking three steps backward then forward, ending up right where you started reflects something similar.
It could mean taking a step back from where we were, gaining perspective, and then returning to our place with new context, which is a recurring theme by now, the clarity and consciousness we need to face up to our challenges correctly and properly. By returning to where we were before, perhaps are acting out what we hope to get from our prayer, seeing that God was right where I was, only I wasn’t where He was. I had to step away for a bit to see God was always there. The Mona Lisa is heralded as the greatest artwork a human has produced; if you stuck your nose to the canvas you wouldn’t really be able to see the masterpiece for what it is. It’s cordoned off to the optimal vantage point, twenty or so feet away. Sometimes you need to step back for a moment to gain perspective on where we were.
R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov was traveling one day, and he encountered a young boy crying. He stooped down, and asked the child what was wrong. Explained the child, he’d been playing hide and seek with his friends, and no-one came to find him. Even worse, they kept playing until it was time to go home, and no one noticed he was gone. In the phase of history we are currently in, God is hiding. But are we looking? What’s it like for God to be hiding and for us to not be looking? How many people in the world are looking for god?
The Torah describes how amidst the thunder, the mountain was enveloped in progressive fields of darkness, cloud, and hazy fog – חושך, ענן ,וערפל. The Mishna Berura suggests that each of the three steps symbolizes walking through those distortion fields. R’ Twersky suggests that we arrange our own distortion fields in our lives of our own making, barriers around ourselves to the divine, blinding ourselves from seeing more in different ways. Darkness blinds us from perceiving that there is something to look for, but fixing that is easy – just need to turn on the lights! Cloud blinds us by obscuring things – you can see dainty but not in details, and you get lost amid lack of clarity, seeing but not recognizing things as they truly are. Fog blinds us in a more sinister way. If you ever drive in fog, you should know to turn on your lights, so people know you’re there. But the trouble with fog is that it doesn’t just mask what’s there, it also catches and reflects the light, and so while helping people know that someone is there, they actually can’t see anything at all, because the fog distorts the light, and the light contributes to the distortion effect. There are times the Torah and its ideas can be blinding – people who have the light, and yet it’s distorted or distorted. Refracted and twisted, bent and corrupted light.
We all experience blindness of some kind. We all compartmentalize our Judaism. Even if it’s not like we keep every other Shabbos, or keep Kosher on Thursdays, we are all complacent about things. Whether it’s blessings before or after food, praying, praying with a minyan; we are all complacent about things we shouldn’t be complacent about, and that’s the blindness or distortion in our lives. But even more nefariously, there are mitzvos and ideals we aren’t complacent about, the things we take super duper seriously, and ironically, those blind us to all our shortcomings more than anything!
Perhaps taking three steps is the act of looking for God. If you’ve ever realized that you lost something, you search through the house til you find it, and unless interrupted, you’ll go back to where you started when you realized it was missing. But now you’ve found it. And when we find it, hashem sefasai tiftach
What’s the most important thing about torah? Context – zooming out
Avraham does akeida.
What’s fascinating is that the very words we utter to open our prayer were spoken by King David, at his lowest point. He’d married Batsheva under morally problematic circumstances, and could no longer experience prophecy. In his rock bottom moment of abolsute failure, he begged God to open his lips – Hashem sefasai tiftach. There is an irony to David praying to pray, but it serves to illustrate that there is no such thing as not being able to pray. King David honestly and truly felt that way – but he was wrong. He doesn’t feel worthwhile, and he prayer to get there again. It is of the highest significance that the archetype we channel to open our prayers is of someone who feeling bad and sad, rightly or wrongly. Bring your ugly feelings to your prayers too – that’s literally where these words come from. Your thoughts and feelings are the rocket fuel that animate the words with life and meaning – they’re hollow and empty if you don’t infuse with spirit and emotion.
A sinner can feel cast aside, they’ve lost their way, walked the path away from God. But the funny thing is, wherever you are in the physical or spiritual universe, if you ever get lost, it’s actually not hard at all to course correct; you just have to turn the right way and now you’re on the right track again. Ki lo sachpotz bmos hames ki im bshuvo midarko. Teshuva can be as simple as turning to face the right direction