“The symbolism of the Aleinu prostrations”
Kol Nidrei 5766
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
The Aleinu prayer is recited as the concluding composition of each and every service. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur its entire spirit is changed, however. It is chanted to a haunting melody and it is accompanied by a full bodily prostration. The question we may ask is, why do we restrict our prostrations to just those three days in the year? After all, the prayer does contain the phrase, Va’anachnu kor’im umishtachavim, ‘And we bow and prostrate ourselves.’ Is it not surprising, therefore, that we don’t do as we say, especially as in Temple times such prostrations were made by the entire congregation on a daily basis?
The answer lies in the adoption of prostrations by Christianity and Islam as a central aspect of their rituals. Jewish authorities, wishing to made a clear distinction between Jewish and sectarian or other religion’s practices, recoiled from the ritual of prostrating and compensated by ordaining bowing in just a few blessings of the Amidah and at that phrase in the Aleinu.
So was there any other form of gesticulation to accompany prayer, beside bowing or prostration? There was. Originally petition was accompanied by the lifting up of the hands heavenwards. This is referred to in the sidrah Beshalach, where the battle against Amalek is described. While the battle was raging in the valley below, Moses spent the time in fervent prayer and petition to God from a high vantage point. The Torah states that, ‘as long as Moses’ hands were raised up [in prayer ], Israel gained the upper hand, but when Moses lowered his hands, Amalek was enabled to gain the advantage’ (Ex. 17:11). But Moses could not physically keep his hands fully raised in prayer, so Aaron and Hur stood on either side of him and supported his hands until battle was won.
Now this raising of the hands in prayer was also embraced by early Christianity, which explains why Jewish law states specifically that the priests are only to raise their arms to the height of their shoulders, and not higher, since that might be perceived as chukkat ha-goyyim, adopting a gentile practice.
Let us return to the ritual of prostration. If we look at our Tenakh, we find that it was the common bodily posture and demeanour as an accompaniment to petitionary prayer. There are, in fact, over 170 references to prostration in the Tenakh, all employing the verb lehishtachavot, ‘to prostrate oneself. And so, in deference to that original Israelite practice, just once a year we allow ourselves to claim back our original mode of praying by prostrating ourselves in the Aleinu composition.
As to why just in Aleinu, there are two reasons. First because Aleinu was originally composed as an introducvtion to the Malkhuyyot, ‘kingship’ section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, before it was translated into the daily liturgy. Since that section is a symbolic coronation of God as monarch of the universe, prostration was regarded as a most appropriate and make obeisance when petitioning a king. And how much more so before the melech malkhei ha-melachim, ‘the king of all kings.’
The Second reason for the choice of Aleinu for prostration is simply because it contains the phrase Va’anachnu kor’im umishtachavim...’and we bow and prostrate ourselves.’
But what does full prostration symbolise? And wherein lies the conceptual difference between praying in an upright position, or with arms raised aloft, and praying fully prostrated on the ground?
Well the Aleinu itself contrasts the two modes: It speaks of God as residing in His remotest transcendence – umoshav yekaro bashamayim mima’al ushekbhinat uzzo begavhei meromim, “The seat of his glory is in the heavens above, and His mighty presence is in the loftiest heights.” In acknowledgment of such a remote Being, the notion of raising one’s hands heavenwards, merely gesturing towards the unreachable region of His majesty, is the best we can do.
But Aleinu does not stop there. It affirms that God is not aloof or containable within some heavenly region. He is not remote, or even above our heads. Ki Adonai hu ha’Elohim bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitachat, “The Lord is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath.” And here we have the reason for our full prostration on the ground: to give expression to the God who is not only located in the highest heavens, but also on earth below, indeed beneath our very feet.
Someone once asked a rabbi why it was that no one had experienced God face to face any more. The rabbi answered: ‘Because we are all looking in the wrong direction!’ We think of Him as remote. We make Him remote by banishing Him from our lives and our concerns, and then we expect Him to be close and open up to us. We raise hands aloft to Him at a distance. We do not explore the pathways that lead directly to Him – pathways lit up by daily prayer, daily study of His revealed word and will, and by daily acts of gemilut chesed, concern, charity and kindness. And we are surprised that, to borrow the phraseology of the Priestly blessing, His face does not appear to shine upon us or His countenance to be lifted up toward us.
We speak of God as a Father, yet when He reacts like a father we are mystified. What does a parent do when a child is badly behaved? The parent chastises and punishes the child, deprives it of something it holds precious, be it a treat it is looking forward to receiving, something it is looking forward to doing or a visit the child is looking forward to making. The parent also indicates by his or her body language that it is displeased. A sense of distance is consciously created. The child is meant to read displeasure in the set of the parent’s face, in the curtness or total absence of communication. We regard that as fully deserved, as a most appropriate response, indeed as beneficial for the character training and moral education of the child. Yet when God does the same we cry foul! When He hides His face we challenge His mercy, His righteousness, indeed, His very existence. We fail to appreciate that when we drive God into exile, when our actions banish Him to the remotest regions, He also suffers the pangs of separation.
When Adam sinned and hid from God, God cried out ayyeka, ‘Where are you?’ God felt and lamented Adam’s absence; God’s glory was diminished by Adam’s gesture of defiance; God’s pride in His offspring was lessened by the offspring’s act of rejection.
So if, under similar circumstances, we flee from God and in consequence cannot feel His embrace, if His cry of Ayyeka, ‘Where are you?’, goes unanswered, if we are not there to receive His goodness and blessing, if the lines of communication are down and we cannot hear His voice, feel His presence and glory in His blessings, then in truth we must ask ourselves, whose fault it is, who has turned his back on Whom?
This, my friends, is the message of the Aleinu prostrations at this season. It is a call for us to locate God, not at a distance, not by scanning the heavens, but by discerning His presence in the closest proximity to us: amid the multiple, life-sustaining and pleasurable blessings that spring from the earth, in the people - created in the image of God - that surround us, in the cry of a new-born babe, in the innocent and trusting smile of an infant, through the student’s study of Science and his awe at the amazing unity-amid-diversity that characterises the universe. Those prostrations and embrace of the earth are also a call to locate and sanctify God through the experience of our physical pleasures, to praise him for the consummate beauty of His world, for the gifts of true love, friendship and community, for the many opportunities for personal growth that life presents, and for the joy and fulfilment that family offers. We embrace and affirm the world that is beneath our feet, the stage upon which we are all called upon to give a morally and ethically virtuoso performance.
Those Aleinu prostrations also symbolise the humility that we should adopt when we contemplate the grandeur and the mystery all around us. Indeed we should abase ourselves for the opportunities we let slip by, the challenges we ignore and the relationship with God we fail to cement.
May we resolve to do more with our lives in the year ahead, so that we may help to hasten the day when Adonai echad ushemo echad, ‘The Lord will be One, His name One – from which will flow the blessing we so desperately need, that His children will also be One, cemented by unity of purpose and the pursuit of peace. Amen.