At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:
וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:
“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…” (Deut. 11:13)
We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema. It is the one that we usually recite silently. Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all. It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God. If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.
So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?
The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a). The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.” He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices. The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev? What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah. You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.
Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual. He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Ex. 23:25). He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.
The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers. Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book. Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.
So what is tefilah? What is prayer?
There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah. As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.
As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai. That is when they received the Ten Commandments. We read them in last week’s parashah. The first two commandments are: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before Me. And, Don’t worship idols.
Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back. So what do the Israelites do? The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.
For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two. Not a good start. It sure didn’t take them long, did it?
Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them. He describes what happened in his own words: וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”
The Torah likes to the play with language. It is full of puns and patterns. Hebrew is built on three letter root words. Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways. In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.” אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.
While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not. Moses did not just fall to the ground. He threw himself to the ground. But there is more. God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf. Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”
Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל. Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל. But with one letter different. Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”
A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron. Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל. “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.
The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.
It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God. Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes. The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might. Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving. Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken. After praise comes request. The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.
In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them. But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.
What does throwing oneself on the ground mean? It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible. It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.
Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper. How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?
To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator. The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.
Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self. Literally, his entire body. His physical posture contributes to his emotional state. Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.