Rav Kook Torah

The Proper Dose of Deference

The focus of the Amidah, the core prayer of the daily liturgy, is inwards. It is recited quietly, with little physical movement. As its name suggests, one stands during the Amidah, with legs placed together to emulate the angels. Even bowing is limited to two of its nineteen blessings:

“One bows when reciting these blessings: the beginning and end of Avot (the blessing of the patriarchs), and the beginning and end of Hoda’ah (the blessing for giving thanks). If a person should want to bow at the end of all of the blessings, or at their beginning, he is instructed not to do so.” (Berachot 34a)

What is special about these two blessings that they were designated for bowing? Why do we bow both at their beginning and end? Any why not bow down for all the blessings of the Amidah prayer?

Following the Avot

First we need to clarify: what does it mean to bow one’s head? This gesture signals a sense of deference and humility. These feelings are especially appropriate when we compare ourselves to those who are far greater than us.

The Amidah prayer opens with the Avot blessing. In this blessing, we begin praying by connecting to God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It is logical that we should follow the spiritual path of our illustrious forefathers. However, it should be clear that there is no comparison between our feeble grasp of God’s infinite greatness, and the far more profound understanding attained by those giants of the spirit. Therefore, as we recall the patriarch’s unique relationship to God, it is proper that we indicate our comparatively humble abilities.

In fact, we bow twice, to show our relative inferiority in two respects. The first is in terms of their natural receptiveness to the Divine, the remarkable readiness of their pure hearts and lofty emotions. We recognize their innate superior gifts by bowing at the start of the blessing, corresponding to the natural spiritual awakening that commences a special connection to God.

But we are also fall short of the Avot in terms of our intellectual powers and achievements. We demonstrate this relative inferiority by bowing at the end of the blessing, since intellectual analysis takes place after the initial emotional awakening.

In short: the key message of the Avot blessing is an attempt to perceive God with at least a small measure of the lofty images of the patriarchs. Then we may honor and relate to God in accordance with their unique Divine service. This approach necessitates that we demonstrate obeisance and humility at the beginning and the end of the blessing, corresponding to our inferior powers of emotion and intellect.

Insufficient Thanks

The Sages taught that one should also bow one’s head during the penultimate blessing, the brachah of Hoda’ah, as we express our gratitude and thanks to God. Why is this blessing also suitable for bowing?

In Hoda’ah, we contemplate God’s constant kindnesses towards us: “for our lives that are in Your charge, for our souls that are in Your care, for Your miracles that are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and favors.” We must recognize, however, that no matter how much we try to envision our indebtedness to God, it is incomplete. Both in terms of our feelings of gratitude, and our comprehension of our debt to God, we cannot express nor do we even have the ability to grasp the full extent of thanksgiving that is appropriate. Therefore, we bow at the beginning and the end of the blessing of Hoda’ah, to demonstrate the inadequacy of our gratitude, emotionally and intellectually.

The Goal of Humility

But why did the Sages restrict our bowing to only these two blessings? Why not bow during other parts of the Amidah prayer?

We do not bow our heads in order to become apathetic and resigned to failure. Humility is a beautiful trait, but we must take care not to become mired in a debilitating morass of low spirits and negativity. On the contrary, the true purpose of humility is to inspire one to strive for greater spiritual attainments. An accurate assessment of our current state should prevent complacency. It should stimulate us to uncover our soul’s true potential, and strive for those lofty levels that are suitable for it.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of excessive meekness, the Sages warned against bowing during every blessing of the Amidah. We must recognize our true spiritual capabilities, and be aware, not only of a sense of humbleness, but all of the wide range of feelings that emanate from the light of truth.

(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 163-164; Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 266)

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