What is the purpose of the various movements and bowing in prayer? Parshat Vayigash and hilchot tefilla provide insight for individuals as well as for people in leadership roles.
The midrash notes the emotionally charged word which the Torah uses when Yehuda approaches Yosef: “Vayigash.” Based on other instances of this word Tanach, the midrash suggests 3 possible interpretations of what “vayigash” expressed: as one would approach in battle, an approach from a place of appeasement or, “hagasha l’tefilla,” approach through prayer. The same word, different connotations; and the person would have very different body language.
The term “hagasha l’tefilla,” appears in the halakhic literature on tefilla as well. The Rema writes (OH 95:1) that when we are about to recite the Amidah prayer, we take 3 steps forward by way of kiruv and hagasha – a sign of coming close and approaching. Separately, Rav teaches in the Talmud: “One who is praying, should bow in the appropriate places.” One should bow when saying “baruch” and stand upright when saying God’s name. Rav Kook explains that these body movements help instill within us the words of tefilla and a balance between feeling humble before God, but not lowering ourselves too much. The Talmud specifies that the High Priest and King are required to bow more frequently in tefilla, to ensure that alongside their power, they remain humble.
In one of the most popular TED talks ever (although subsequently challenged), Amy Cuddy demonstrates the difference in our body language when we feel victorious vs. when we are sad. She argues that standing in a power pose like Wonder Woman actually impacts a person’s hormones and raises his/her confidence level. May we as individuals and may our leaders find the posture to balance humility and confidence in the way we approach Hashem, in the way we interact with each other, and in the way we serve the Jewish people. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson