Three Steps for Mankind

Giant leaps for mankind. Astronauts jumping on the moon. Image created by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

In his introduction to the Rabbinical Council of America’s version of the Artscroll Siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman has a lovely essay on the opening word of today’s sedra, Vayigash, “And he drew close.” Because the work is not widely available outside America, I summarise the essay here.

It is our custom to take three steps forward before beginning the Amidah, the “standing prayer.” These steps symbolise a formal approach to the Divine presence. It is as if we had been ushered into the innermost chamber of the palace, and we “draw close” to present our petition to the supreme King of kings.

R. Eleazar ben Judah (c.1165-c.1230), author of the Sefer Rokeach, made the fascinating suggestion that these three steps correspond to the three times in the Hebrew Bible where the word Vayigash, “and he drew close,” is used in connection with prayer.

The first is the moment when Abraham hears of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gemorah and the cities of the plain. “Abraham approached [vayigash] and said: Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? . . . Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:23-25).

The second occurs in today’s sedra. Joseph’s silver goblet has been found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph – whose true identity is still unknown to the brothers – says that Benjamin will now be held as his slave. The others may go free. Judah, having given Jacob his personal guarantee of Benjamin’s safe return, now pleads for his release. “Then Judah drew close [vayigash] to him and said: Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord” (Gen. 44:18).

The third appears in the great confrontation at Mount Carmel between the Prophet Elijah and the 450 false prophets of Baal. Elijah proposes a test. Let each side prepare a sacrifice and call on the name of their deity. The one that sends fire is the true God. The 450 prophets do so. They prepare the sacrifice and ask Baal to send fire. Nothing happens. They cry all day, shouting, gyrating, lacerating themselves and working themselves into a frenzy but no fire comes. Then “Elijah stepped forward [vayigash] and prayed: O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.” Fire descends, and the people fall to the ground, saying: “The Lord, He is God. The Lord, He is God” (I Kings 18). We recite this sentence seven times at the climax of Neilah on Yom Kippur.

Three approaches, three prayers, but very different from one another. Abraham prays for justice. Judah prays for mercy. Elijah prays for God to reveal himself.

Abraham prays on behalf of strangers – the people of the plain. They are, we know, wicked. The Torah told us this long before, when Lot first separated from Abraham to make his home in Sodom (Gen. 13:13). Yet Abraham is concerned with their fate. He pleads in their defence. Abraham speaks out of the covenant of human solidarity.

Judah pleads with Joseph for the sake of his brother Benjamin and his father Jacob who, he knows, will not be able to bear the loss of yet another beloved son. He speaks on behalf of the family and its integrity, the bonds of emotion that bind those who share a common ancestry.

Elijah speaks to God, as it were, for the sake of God. He wants the people to renounce idolatry and return to their ancestral faith – to the one true God who rescued them from Egypt and took them to Himself in love. His primary concern is for God’s sovereignty over the people. Later, when God reveals himself on Mount Horeb, Elijah says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” He speaks for the honour of God Himself.

Their respective stances, too, are different. Abraham, in the course of his prayer, calls himself “nothing but dust and ashes.” Judah describes himself as a “servant” in the presence of a ruler. Elijah describes himself as a prophet, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left.” Abraham represents our sense of awe in the presence of infinity, Judah our humility in the face of majesty, Elijah the grandeur and dignity of those who are bearers of the Divine word.

There are echoes of these encounters in the first three paragraphs of the Amidah.

The first is about the patriarchs. God “remembers the good deeds of the fathers.” This reminds us of Abraham’s prayer.

The second is about Gevurah, God’s governance of the universe, “supporting the fallen, healing the sick, setting free the bound and keeping faith with those who lie in the dust.” When we recite it, we are like Judah standing before Joseph, a servant/subject in the presence of sovereignty and power.

The third is about Kedushat Hashem, “the holiness of God’s name,” meaning the acknowledgement of God by human beings. When an act makes people conscious of God’s existence, we call it a Kiddush Hashem. That is precisely what Elijah sought to do, and succeeded in doing, on Mount Carmel.

These three prayers – each an historic moment in the unfolding of the human spirit towards God – together represent the full spectrum of emotions and concerns we bring to the act of prayer. Each is introduced by the word vayigash, “and he approached, drew close, stepped forward.” As we take three steps forward at the start of each prayer, we are thereby retracing the footsteps of three giants of the spirit, Abraham, Judah and Elijah, re-enacting their great encounters with God.

On 21 July 1969 Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the moon, uttered the famous words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Behind our three small steps towards heaven lie three no less historic leaps for mankind.

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