There is an important custom that has developed at the beginning of the Amidah, literally the "Standing" prayer: We take three steps backwards and three steps forward while reciting a verse from Psalm 51:15 that has six Hebrew words, saying a word at each step. What does this specific practice and Jewish prayer (tefillah) in general teach us about fostering sacredness in our lives?
In this week's Torah portion, Terumah, God shares the mitzvah to build a dwelling place for God that will travel among the people of Israel in the desert and ultimately be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Mishkan: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם "They shall make for Me a sacred place so I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8) Just as Israelites passed from the regular space of their daily lives into this sacred encampment, so too does each individual take these steps to move into a sacred space whenever he or she approaches God to recite the Amidah. This practice teaches us that when we carve out dedicated spaces, be it our individual prayer space, the family dinner table, or communal places of prayer in synagogue, we can access God's presence. It also teaches us that we need to approach such spaces with proper intentionality, hence the verse we say as we take these steps, or saying blessings before the meal, and the special mah tovu prayer we say upon entering the synagogue.
In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that Judaism's contribution is not the building of great edifices since the majority of our history has been in exile; rather, by observing Shabbat and holidays, we have constructed palaces in time. Setting aside specific times from the rest of the week, and filling these times with joy and pleasure, reflection and prayer, family and community, we enter into and delight in an elaborate palace. We commune with the King of kings as we immerse ourselves in what is most meaningful and the purpose of our lives. There is a mitzvah, a Jewish obligation to pray three times each day - morning, afternoon, and evening. At each prayer session, we recite the Amidah. When we take these three steps backwards and forwards we are dedicating our time to this sacred experience of time.
In the priestly book of the Torah - Leviticus, Vayikra or Torat Kohanim - an important world view about how to approach the sacred is presented. Simply put, one has to be in a pure state of being, tahor, to enter into the sacred precincts of the Temple, especially a Kohen, one serving as priest. One becomes impure, tamei, by coming into contact with the dead, certain diseases and bodily fluids. To become tahor, one needs to wait a certain amount of time from having such contacts and immerse in a mikveh, a living body of water. This ancient system thus predicates contact with the sacred upon the spiritual state of being of a person. In our modern society, do we have a sense of what it means to be spiritually fit to approach the sacred? Are we sensitive to moods, physical disposition, mental awareness as we enter into place of prayer? Perhaps those who meditate have developed such a sense of themselves. When we take three steps forward to approach God, can we assess our spiritual readiness? Are we ready? Are we pure? Are we distracted? Have we come into contact with something in our lives that we have to deal with before we can enter into a sacred place? These questions may seem strange to many of us. Perhaps that is why prayer is so foreign to many Jews today. What do we need to do to prepare ourselves to pray? These three simple steps can remind us that we have to exert such effort to approach the sacred.
Stepping into sacredness during the Amidah teaches us that we need to dedicate sacred spaces is our lives, even if that space in a place that we simply walk into with intentionality. Observing Shabbat, holiday, or the daily practice of Jewish prayer reminds us of the importance to dedicate specific times in our lives to what is of ultimate importance. Finally, we need to do inner work to ready ourselves to approach the sacred. It isn't realistic that such experiences happen magically. Thus, we need to step with great awareness of ourselves into the sacred.
On a personal note, dedicating myself to the sacred has come naturally at certain times of my life, and at other times I have had to reach towards it because it has been distant and challenging. I am grateful that it remains a goal that directs my life and values.