Just yesterday, the second day of Shavuos, was when it happened! On that day we stood around Har Sinai and saw the massive roaring fire and blinding lightning. We heard the deafening thunder and the ear-shattering sound of the shofar. Dark clouds surrounded the mountain, hiding the glory of Hashem that had descended. A terrifying event, indeed. Then, before our eyes, Moshe Rabbeinu went straight into the midst of this raging inferno. How could a human being possibly exist there for even one moment? Yet, he stayed there for forty days and nights without eating or sleeping! He literally became an angel.
But guess what? You and I do the same thing every day. No, I am not delusional. You see, every time we daven Shemoneh Esrei we go up to Har Sinai, just as Moshe did!
The Shulchan Aruch rules (O.C. 123:1) that when we conclude Shemoneh Esrei we must take three steps back. The Bais Yosef relates in the name of the Orchos Chaim: The Midrash states that when Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Har Sinai he went up through three areas: “Choshech, anan, and arafel – darkness, cloud and thick cloud.” When he came down, he had to exit these three areas. So too, when we conclude Shemoneh Esrei, we take three steps back to symbolize that we are also coming down from Har Sinai. Another reason given is that just as Klal Yisrael were distanced from Har Sinai three mil, we also distance ourselves three steps when we are finished. From here we see that when we pray it is as if we are on Har Sinai.
On a simple level we can suggest that we do not actually go to Har Sinai. The Gemara in Sukkah (5a) states that when Moshe went up to Har Sinai, Hashem brought Heaven down to him so that Moshe could be in this world and in Heaven at the same time. So too, when we pray, even though we are here on earth, Hashem brings Heaven down. In order to make that more real to ourselves, we act as Klal Yisrael did at Har Sinai.
Angels in Prayer
Besides ascending to Heaven, we also become angels just as Moshe did. The Shulchan Aruch rules (O.C. 95:1), based on the Gemara in Brachos (10b), that during Shemoneh Esrei we must place our legs together so they appear as one leg, just as angels only have one leg. The Bais Yosef cites the words of Rabbeinu Yonah who explains: “The reason is that since the person is standing up to speak to the Shechinah he must remove all body-related thoughts from his mind and act as if he is an angel.”
Why is this so?
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman explains (in the beginning of “Yimalei pi sehilasecha” on Tefillah) that Hashem created angels to serve Him in Heaven and humans to serve Him on earth. The only difference between the angels and us is that they have no concerns other than spiritual matters, and we humans have concerns about any number of material matters. That means that besides for the times we tend to our bodily and material concerns, we must serve Hashem like an angel – with no thoughts of the physical.
Throughout the day it is very difficult to rise to the level of angels, as Hashem created us specifically as a neshama inside a body. But when we come to speak to Hashem and rise up to Heaven, to a world without a physical dimension, we take on the aspect of angels. We must put away all our worries, as now we are with Hashem. That is what is expected from us when we come close to Hashem in prayer.
Putting our feet together does not automatically turn us into a malach free of worries. Rather, doing so demonstrates that we are striving to reach a level that is somewhat more exalted than what we experience when we are not in prayer. We want to instill in ourselves the knowledge that when we daven Shemoneh Esrei, we are standing in front of Hashem like a ministering angel with no other desire but to serve Him.
But how, indeed, do we push all our worries and plans out of our minds while we daven? The entire day we are busy taking care of ourselves – is there a way to suddenly turn into an angel who has no needs at all?
Perhaps the continuation of the Bais Yosef’s comments will help us. He cites a second reason for putting our feet together from Rav Yitzchok Abuhav. He writes that by acting as if we only have one leg we are symbolically declaring that we cannot run or accomplish anything on our own.
A person who has only one arm is severely handicapped, but can still live a normal life. However, a person with one leg is quite immobile. That is what we must instill in ourselves – the acknowledgment that without Hashem we are helpless.
One reason we have so much difficulty putting aside our thoughts when we daven is that we think we are in full control of our lives. If we do not take care of ourselves, who will? Therefore, in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei we have a hard time holding back from thinking about our personal matters. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Even though Hashem wants us to take care of ourselves, it must be with the understanding that it really He Who is doing so. Our success is dependant on Him. By placing our feet together we demonstrate that all of our accomplishments are attributable to His desires.
Putting our feet together helps us realize that when we daven, we attain the status of angels. Just as they do not have a care in the world because they do not have any physical needs, we too do not have to worry as Hashem is taking care of us. Then, when we ask Hashem for parnasah, health and success, it will be with this awareness. I cannot take care of myself – so Hashem, please take care of all these needs.
The Rama (O.C. 95:1) writes that before we begin Shemoneh Esrei we take three steps forward. There are many reasons given for this custom, but based on the above we have another understanding. We are now going through the three levels that Moshe went through when he rose to Heaven on Har Sinai.
Chazal knew that it is difficult for us to feel that we are standing in front of Hashem, so they gave us these simple actions to help us reach that goal. The more we are aware of what we are doing, the more these actions will affect our feelings when we pray. So when you take those three steps forward and place your legs together, try to imagine that you are now ascending to Heaven and becoming an angel! Doing so will transform our prayer into an intimate experience of closeness to Hashem!