Conquering the body

Conquering the body

September 24, 2009 14:48
2 minute read.


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One must be "in position" in order to receive atonement. This is meant literally. In Jewish practice - avoda - consciousness often needs to flow from the body. On Yom Kippur bodily positioning takes four forms that need careful attention. Standing: We stand as angels do, as if hovering in the air. Standing, which should be done for the majority, if not the entirety, of the service, means to stand before God in His court. Standing allows for a direct I-Thou relationship with God, without the withdrawal into self-concern, emptiness (via meditation) or triviality (gossiping) occasioned by sitting. Standing, especially in the Standing Prayer (Amida), must be without leaning or balancing oneself on a wall or chair. No support is allowed. You must stand and deliver to God your message. Prostration: In seeking atonement, we bend knee, kneel and fully prostrate ourselves. We do so only on this day. Every prayer group becomes a mikdash in which we bodily practice hachna'a - utter and complete submission to God. In standing our ego is intact; in prostration we allow our ego to be overwhelmed and to crack. In the time of the Temple we heard God's name with our ears and, overwhelmed, we fell on our face. Today we fall on our face straining to hear God's name with our soul. Beating our heart: The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre correctly observed that true confession is impossible. For when we confess about ourselves, we actually create an image or construction of self. We create a third party who did whatever he or she did, who is connected to us but somehow removed from our real being. Sartre's observation is a challenge and is also useful. The disconnection allows us to talk of ourselves and to judge ourselves with a critical distance as we recite the litany of al het (for the sin of...). But our bending forward as we do so and the simple beating of our heart allows our consciousness to absorb the fact that we are indeed not only talking about ourselves, but we are talking now from our very selves. Fasting: Ridding ourselves of food/drink, marital relations, soothing ointments, washing and leather footgear initially makes us more conscious of the body. We "play" at ve'anitem et nafshoteichem ("and you shall torture your life force..."). The body is not the measure of all things, and once a year it must be conquered. That accomplished, the body then becomes the subject of our sacrifice to God. Certainly this torture/sacrifice is controlled and doable, and isn't harmful. But it's also very real. Eventually, through the fast, the body is transcended. The bodily practice of atonement means: one stands directly before God; one is overwhelmed by God; one takes responsibility for what one has made of oneself; and one refuses to be defined by bodily needs. In orderings and in various combinations, the body leads us to atonement consciousness. The writer, a rabbi, is director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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