By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
Upon concluding the “Amidah” (the central prayer of each daily service, recited standing), we customarily take three steps back, and bow right and left – thus humbly taking our leave (as it were) of the Divine Presence we have been addressing. So critical is this liturgical choreography that the Talmud says: “If one does not do so, it would have been better not to pray at all!” (Yoma 53B).
The ritual steps back may be understood not merely as a gesture of humility, but of the need for a carefully considered perspective and self-awareness. Actress Teri Garr urged: “Take a step back, evaluate what is important, and enjoy life.” True prayer and piety demand more than prescribed words and sacred symbolism. In order to progress spiritually, we must regularly “step back” and examine the meaning of our observance and our moral obligations, our relationships and our faith. In the context of prayer, this means contemplating what the words we have recited really mean. How might we more fully give expression in our daily lives to the values we espouse liturgically?
Tractate Yoma (and Terri Garr) echo the wisdom of Socrates, famously quoted by Plato: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)