It happens only once a year, during the High Holidays: a full prostration, human body to the floor.
In my congregation, the rabbi, and sometimes the guest cantor hired for the High Holidays, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, each joined by two congregant-assistants, prostrate themselves fully on the bimah, the platform on which the holy ark stands and from where our spiritual leaders, informed and inspired by the sacred teachings held within the ark, guide us through services. Their assistants remain upright while the rabbi and cantor lower themselves to the ground before the ark, before Torah, which is coming, coming, ever coming at and through them (and us) from Zion. Then, after allowing the spiritual leaders ample time to surrender to the divine, they help rabbi and cantor back to their feet.
It always seems curious to me, so much engagement of bodies—two bodies, at least—out of place in a space where all other bodies are pretty much constricted, confined to standing and sitting and maybe swaying a little while squeezed into pews.
Still, some drama in the moment for us, at times worshippers, at times spectators.
There are some other designated, “choreographed” movements sprinkled throughout a Jewish prayer service.
This one, for instance: bending the knee, bowing from the waist. This move comes at a few moments in the service, including at the opening of the formal prayer service, which, in the morning, follows warm-up blessings and psalms—emotional and spiritual stretching, as it were, to prepare one’s inner self to be fully present to the divine. It’s also a way of awakening, strengthening, and concentrating one’s attention on what, in this context (in all contexts?) matters most.
Thank you for restoring my soul. The soul you have given me is pure. Thank you for placing it inside this body, this hut of clay. How good are your dwelling places. Blessed is the One who opens the eyes, frees the captive, gives strength to the weary, crowns Israel with splendor. Hallelu Yah.
After sitting and rising and sitting, after mumbling and singing, finally we arrive at the opening of the formal prayer service.
We rise. We face the ark. We’re ready to open, to enter the heart.
Barchu et HaShem HaMevorach. Praise (bless) Y-H-V-H to whom all praise (blessing) is directed. Baruch HaShem HaMevorach L’olam Va’ed. Praise (bless) Y-H-V-H to whom all praise (blessing) is directed forever.
Baruch, bless, blessed, blessing: it shares the same root as berech, b-r-ch, the Hebrew word for “knee.” Every word in Hebrew grows from a root, typically a three-letter root. Three consonants. (Are vowels flowers, the showy, seductive, decorative feature of the plant?)
Baruch Atah HaShem (Y-H-V-H): I bend, I bow, I rise: I worship with knees, waist, spine.
Worship? Well, maybe. As instructed, I make the move. But, for me it’s often routine, rote, empty, mindless, cute.
Am I cut off from my root when I don’t experience devotion, blessing in my knees?
I make my bed every morning.
I don’t know where to start
so I start with the bed.
Then I fall to my knees against it.
Without knowing what I’m falling to,
no mind makes it do it, my body just falls.
These lines, from the 21st sonnet of a 39 sonnet sequence, a crown of sonnets entitled “The Addresses,” which make up the second section of Katie Ford’s book if you have to go.
Until turning to Lauren Winner’s review-essay, “Forms of Desire,” of three recently published books of poetry which recently appeared in Image, I’d never read Ford. Immediately after finishing Winner’s review, I logged onto Amazon, ordered if you have to go.
What compelled me to act immediately? What need? What desire? Why did I feel that I couldn’t live—that my life would be incomplete—without this book? Poems spoken to a human and divine—the Divine—addressee. Both absent, but absence felt so acutely, it is a kind of presence. And the speaker’s voice: urgent and intimate, itself a presence.
Maybe mind made me do it. But something else, I think, something deeper, something other than mind drove me to the work.
I don’t read theology. At least not much. I read poems.
On bending the knees and bowing, the commentators of Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s prayerbook for Shabbat & Festivals, write, “Bowing is both a symbolic acknowledgment that our prayers are to God and also a sign of humility . . . “ As they would, the sages, whose discussions are recorded in the Talmud, disagree “about how deeply one should bow: some say that one should fully bend over, some that one should feel one’s spine bending, and others that one should bow only one’s head (Berakhot 28b).”
Sometimes, the mind, its reasons. Sometimes not. The body knows what the body knows. And it falls.
And thought returns. Restless, relentless, it returns:
My body falls into just one thought:
nothing’s outside my door anymore. Maybe a roach.
The one I begged for is gone. Welcome to my plot:
it just happened—
. . . welcome to my plot: sing.
Without. That I can sing.
Sonnet 22, Ford
Grief concentrates being.
Locate the grief: is it in the mind? The chest? The knees? On the tongue, the lips?
Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord
I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored . . .
Sonnet 31, Ford
I say: Lord. What am I saying when I say it?
“ . . . bowing not knowing to what,” W. S. Merwin writes in the final line of his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death.”
Grief, longing, fear, comfort, gratitude, desperation, compassion, love: these feelings and more can be present—sometimes, I’m sure, are present—in the sanctuary during tefilah, prayer.
My learned friend, Justin Goldstein, who, for just a little longer continues to serve as the Rabbi of my congregation, taught me that “full prostration,” for Jews, performed during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services, “probably looked more like child’s pose in yoga than like Tibetan-style fully extended prostration. So, the body is rounded, and the word tefilah is related to the word palel, to round. So l’hitpalel, to pray, means to make oneself round. I think,” Justin teaches, “there is some connection there to the shape of the body in that form of prostration.”
Which came first, the body or the words? Was prayer a spontaneous act of the body to which, eventually, words were attached? Now the mind refuses to submit. It wants to rule, to overrule the body’s wisdom.
Self-consciousness: one reason I haven’t joined in, as the congregation has been invited to do under Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, in the full prostration.
Self-consciousness: perhaps that’s the source of real constriction—fear of loss of the precious self—not the pews to which the body is confined.
Surrender to the divine, even to its absence.
“For the Anniversary of My Death”
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
W. S. Merwin
An acute awareness of the presence or absence of the divine: either way, in such a state, one might also experience a heightened sense of the wonder and strangeness of life in the body on this earth.
On this earth, bodies and minds. And poems and prayers that concentrate and heighten our sense of being, being in relation to and being with. To that I bend a knee, I bow.
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Written by: Richard Chess
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. His work has been included in Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. Find more at www.richardchess.com.