It was all over the news: Bob the farmer had saved the life of the crown prince and the king would be granting him his heart’s desire. Not known for his brains, Bob disclosed at a press conference that he was planning to request nothing less than the crown jewels. Upon hearing his brazenness, several ministers decided that if the king dared give the national heirloom to a commoner they would make sure it would not remain there too long. At the same time, the Mafia was planning to kill Bob as he would leave the palace and escape with the treasure. Luckily, Bob’s brother found out about these dangers and devised a plan for him.
When the great day came, the thankful king handed Bob the stunning jewels. Before anyone could move, Bob spoke: “Your royal majesty! I am deeply grateful for this special sign of your appreciation. But I am extremely pained to say that there are certain people who disagree with the king’s decision and wish to kill me and steal this spectacular present. Yet, I am not worried, as I am certain that no harm can befall me unless the king so wishes.” He then presented the king with proof of their evil plans. The king was fuming mad, and after verifying the story, put an end to their evilness.
This parable describes what happens every day. In the past, we explained that each time we begin to daven, the Satan tries to ensure that we won’t make it to our meeting with Hashem. But if we follow the directions Chazal gave us, such as reciting all the verses of praise in pesukei d’zimrah without skipping, we push away those roadblocks and reach the Master of the Universe. Even at that point, the Satan doesn’t give up. He continues to try to distract us by placing foreign thoughts in our minds. Hopefully, we manage to pull through with some level of kavana and breathe a sigh of relief once we finish. Now we think we can let our guard down – the danger is over.
However, that is a big mistake! The prosecuting angels now start saying, “This guy’s prayers don’t deserve to be accepted by Hashem, he is a sinner! Let’s nab his words before they can reach heaven!” And even if our tefillos are accepted and Hashem grants our wishes, Mr. Satan is not going to let us walk away with those treasures. He will use his evil tools to try and mug us.
Basically, each time we finish davening, our tefillos are in mortal danger. What can we do to ensure that we won’t lose what we just received?
The truth is that we have the keys in our hands. Chazal instituted that we say certain verses and go through various motions at the end of Shemoneh Esrei. To the ignorant bystander it looks like some sort of dance – we walk backward and bow here and bow there. But in reality, the Ramchal writes (Derech Hashem, part IV 5:3) that we are coming down from the lofty heights that we reached in Shemoneh Esrei. If we execute that landing correctly, we will be able to take home what we achieved up there. Let us understand why we do these motions and how they work. At the same time, we will also hopefully change the entire way in which we daven.
We begin our descent with the verse “Yih’yu l’razton imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha –
May the expressions of my mouth and thoughts of my heart find favor before You…”
Here we beseech Hashem to view our words and thoughts of prayer as if they had been uttered with the greatest levels of pureness. But this is not just any verse. The Mishneh Berurah writes (O.C. 122:8) that the fact the phrase begins and ends with the letter “yud,” has ten “yudin,” ten words, and 42 letters all give it a special mystical power which greatly empowers our tefillos. Therefore, one should make sure to say it slowly and with much kavana.
Next, we take three steps back. The Bais Yosef (O. C. 123:1) explains that through this we leave the three areas that we passed through in order to pray Shemoneh Esrei. We take these steps while bowing, the same way that a slave does when leaving his master’s presence, as stated in the Gemara (Yoma 53b). The Gemara says that if a person does not take these steps, he would have been better off not davening. The Levush (O.C. 123:1) explains that if one does not leave with humility it shows that he does not fear Hashem. Not only will Hashem not accept his prayers, his audacity will anger Him.
After that, while still bent over, we face the left and say “oseh shalom b’mromov,” face the right and say “hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu” and then bow to the front and say “v’al kol Yisroel, ve’imru amein.” The Maharsha (ad. loc.) explains that we do so to suppress any evil forces that are trying to stop us from walking away with what we gained. When we bow to the left, we arouse mercy, as we are facing the right of Hashem (since He is facing us), which represents His mercy. Then we bow to the right, toward the left of Hashem, which represents His attribute of strict law. By showing our humility to Hashem, and declaring that all these evil forces have no power on their own, we suppress their claims and protests.
However, we must still explain the final words which we whisper, “ve’imru amein – and say amein.” Who are we speaking to? The Magen Avraham (O. C. 66:7) reveals a great secret: We are speaking to the two angels that escort and protect us, and we ask them to help thwart off any efforts to stop our prayers from being accepted. This is amazing! Normally, we are not on such a high level that we can assume we have a heavenly escort. Perhaps now that we are concluding our heavenly meeting where we rose to the level of angels, we can assume that angels flank us. Before they disappear, we turn to them and ask them to answer amein to our tefillah for help from Hashem.
The Gemara continues that one must remain in his place for a few moments before returning forward, otherwise it is considered as if he did not take any steps at all. (See Shulchan Aruch O. C. 123:2 for details of how long a person must wait.) The reason for this halacha is the same as above. If one rushes forward right away, it shows that he did not take the steps back with the intent to honor the meeting with Hashem – it was just to get them over with. Therefore, they simply do not count!
Before backing up, let us take a moment to picture ourselves leaving the presence of the King of all kings, and take the three steps with that in mind. If we really take this to heart it should arouse in us a strong yearning for closeness to Hashem – the same feelings we have right before we part from a beloved. By doing so every time we pray, we will instill in ourselves the reality that Shemoneh Esrei takes us to a different realm – straight up to a meeting with Hashem!