Thursday, November 5, 2009

Would you watch this movie?

[This week's Toronto Torah is now available here!]

Here’s the movie review:

The actors were stiff, their motions minimalist in the extreme. The movements the director prescribed to fill out the picture, to lend impact to their words, to convince the audience that they really meant what they were saying and to help the players themselves feel their roles, fell flat with a dispassionate listlessness. It was like watching a script read-through; they might as well have been sitting around a table.

I certainly wouldn’t go to a movie like that.

This theatrical image came to mind the other day, when I was thinking about the movements we associate with davening (prayer). An entire suite of motions prescribed by talmud and shulchan aruch are meant to help us enter a fruitful frame of mind for davening (ספר החינוך: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות):

• We cover our eyes for Shma, miming concentration

• We take three steps forward to begin the amidah, as though approaching royalty; ditto for the three steps back at the end, as though departing from royalty’s presence

• We stand with our feet together for the amidah, pretending to be the single-legged angels described in Yechezkel as well as the tight-stepping kohanim who served in the beit hamikdash (Tur Orach Chaim 95)

• We bow from our knees and waist, conveying humility

• We lightly beat our chest with our fist when apologizing for our sins, showing remorse

• We lean forward and shield our eyes for tachanun, demonstrating humbled apology for our errors

Tallit and tefillin have special dramatic practices:
• Those who wear a tallit enwrap themselves entirely while reciting the berachah, and some also wear the tallit over their heads for parts of davening, displaying isolation

• We kiss our tzitzit and tefillin at various points, showing love for these mitzvot

We can build up a powerful frame of mind, drawing ourselves out of our daily rush and into humility, into seclusion with Gd, into love of mitzvot, with these simple actions.

But what good are all of these dramatic gestures, what is the use of all of this drama, if the bows are perfunctory, the steps are casual, the tachanun-lean is more of an opportunity to take a nap than to plead embarrassed guilt?

Perhaps even before we address the problem of talking to others during davening, we could address the way we talk to Gd in the davening – in words and in deeds.

I think I could accomplish much more with my prayer, if I would view it this way, as a drama, and push myself to really act it out as it was meant to be acted out. It could be wonderfully positive.

I certainly want the Great Theater Critic to enjoy it, and to come back for more.


  1. Perhaps even before we address the problem of talking to others during davening, we could address the way we talk to Gd in the davening – in words and in deeds.
    Not perhaps!!!!!!!!!!
    IMVHO the problem of talking to othersduring tfila will only be resolved when we realize we are talking to God during tfila

    Joel Rich

  2. Agree that a lot more feeling could be put into those actions of tefila that seem to have become rote movements. But if you're using that movie metaphor, think about this: sometimes actors overplay their roles, rather than underplay them. They become so emotive that what is being said gets lost in how it's being said. There needs to be a balance.

  3. ...not to mention the rushed nature of trying to get it all done in time to make it to work afterwards at a reasonable time.