Prayer Encoded in the Body

As we approach the Amidah during this morning’s tefillah I want to offer one way of expanding our connection to this foundational prayer of our davening. Not only does this prayer give us an opportunity to approach the Divine through the framework of tradition, history, and community, but it also allows us to come into deeper relationship with our own physical form as a means of accessing Gd.

During a discussion in the Talmud, the rabbis ask what it is that establishes the number of brachot we have in the Amidah. To this question, three possible answers are given. The first two responses say that the number of benedictions reflects the number of times the Divine name is mentioned in David’s Psalm 29, or the number of mentions of Gd’s name in the Shema. Both of these answers use textual evidence as their basis. The third answer given seems in stark contrast to the first two. Rather than citing a biblical passage, Rav Tanchum says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that the number of brachot is related to the number of vertebrae in the human spine.

Through these answers, three paradigms are given for understanding prayer. From the first, we understand prayer as an ancestral paradigm, connected to our past and future. The second ties prayer to a revealed paradigm, linking it to Torah. From the third, prayer is seen as a personal paradigm, connected to our bodies.

It is within this third paradigm that Gd and humanity are brought together through prayer. Prayer is encoded in the human body as a means for humanity to access the Divine. Through this understanding, the infinite nature of Gd is brought into relationship with the mortal reality of the body. Continuing with this third paradigm, if we see each vertebra in our spine as a platform for a blessing we can learn that the basis of prayer is found deep within us. The foundation of prayer and our own foundation are one and the same.

Inherent in the name “Amidah” is the root ayin mem daled – to stand. It is the spine that is the structure that allows us to stand before Gd. We rise not only to take on an appropriately posture for the holy act of speaking to God, but also because this prayer demands engagement of our whole body. The spine is important not just as a means for establishing the blessings in the Amidah, but it is also a vital part of how we physically engage in this prayer. Through the choreography of the Amidah — feet together, turning left and right, rising on our toes, bowing, and straightening — we are able to intensify our coming close to God not only through words, but also through our bodies.

Today, as we go through our Amidah and as we take our bows, may we feel in our bones the connection between our bodies and our prayer, and may this allow us to come ever closer to Gd.