Wednesday, July 12, 2006

God Raises the Bowed


Psalm 146: God Raises the Bowed


When you conjure in your mind a picture of a sincerely religious, truly devout individual - what sort of image do you see?

Often we think in terms of the austere ascetic: weary from fasting, fatigued from study, bent over heavy tomes. Humble in spirit, weak in body.

Rav Kook rejected this stereotype out of hand.

Two Stages

During the ascent towards spiritual perfection, there is indeed a stage when it is necessary to humble oneself. But this is only a preliminary phase, needed in order to break bad habits and rid oneself of flawed character traits. It was about this level that the Sages noted, "Torah study weakens a person's strength" [Sanhedrin 26b].

The ultimate objective is true knowledge of God. At that level, service of God doesn't weaken the soul and its powers. On the contrary, it gives strength and fortitude. The goal is not to enervate the soul, but rather to reveal all its inner resources, allowing it to shine with a holy light, invigorated and joyful.

The energizing effect of divine service is based on the fact that the human soul - in its very essence - is good. Bad traits, on the other hand, are circumstantial, acquired through association with the body's material needs. Spiritual growth bolsters the innate goodness of the soul, after it has been cleansed and freed from incidental negative traits. Thus, the Midrash teaches, "The only true strength is Torah, as it says [Ps. 29:11], 'God will give strength to His people'" [Sifri Deut. 343].

Bowing and Standing Straight

The Sages expressed this idea when discussing the proper way to bow during the silent Amidah prayer. At the start of the prayer, when reciting the word Baruch, one should bow. When saying Hashem (God's Name), however, one should stand up straight. The Talmud [Berachot 12a] derives this from the verse,

"God raises up those who are bowed down." [Ps. 146:8]

This teaching corresponds to the two stages mentioned above. We bow only at the start of the prayer, an indication of the humility needed in order to overcome bad habits during the initial stage of divine service.

When we say God's Name, however, we raise ourselves up to our full height, secure and fortified. The ultimate goal - true knowledge of God - lifts us up. It strengthens the powers of the soul, supplying confidence and joy.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I, p. 65; Olat Re'iyah vol. I, p. 267]

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