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Did you ever wonder why, after our shemone esray at shachris and mincha, we bend over and cover our heads with our arm when saying tachanun, beseeching Hashem to forgive our iniquities? Where did it come from, and what is its significance?
Rabbeinu Bachye says it comes from this week’s Torah portion of Korach. While the outrageous rebellion of Korach and his followers raged and seemed to be picking up steam, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, “Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant. They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation” (Bamidbar 16:20-22).
On this last pasuk Rabbeinu Bachye says that from here we know that we have to “fall on our faces” (nefilas apayim) during davening. One should understand that the concept of nefilas apayim, falling on one’s face, during davening has a threefold intention: (1) for the awe of the Shechina (Holy Presence). (2) To show pain and submission, and (3) to show subjugation of our senses and nullification of our feelings. The first one, for the awe of the Shechina, is in order to enwrap oneself with shame and modesty, for covering one’s face is the way of the humble and embarrassed. And since the intention of the one davening should be that the Shechina is in front of him or her, as it says: “I have placed the Lord before me constantly” (Tehillim 16:8), it was therefore enacted as part of the tactics of prayer to cover one’s face. All this is to instill fear of the Blessed Hashem, as it writes about Moshe: “And Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look toward G-D” (Shemos 3:6). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There are a few interesting observations that could be made here:
1. Why specifically 3 intentions (kavanos)?
2. Why is the first one so much different than the second two, the second two are showing something, whereas the first one as described afterwards is actually feeling emotions?
3. Why not just list in the first one the emotions that should be felt instead of calling it “awe of the Shechina”?
4. Also, how does all this add up to fear of Hashem as he says “All this is to instill fear of the Blessed Hashem?”
It would seem that Rabbeinu Bachye is giving us a formula to instill in ourselves a sense of Fear of Heaven at this point in our prayers, when we beseech Hashem to forgive us for the sins we have committed. The formula is based upon the action of covering our face with our arm, which should produce the feelings of shame and humility, while simultaneously realizing we are sitting (or standing) before The Almighty Judge, King Of All Kings, The Holy One Blessed Be He. This action of covering our face with our arm also shows pain and submission, as well as our senses: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and even touch – being subjugated, and our feelings being nullified. All this put together is a formula to instill into ourselves fear in Hashem.
As in any formula, like the Coca Cola formula, or a beer formula, gas formula, medicine formula, cereal formula, etc., etc. they all need or needed time to be perfected, through trial and error. So too this formula, while it may not need time to become perfected, as we see by Moshe at the burning bush that it was perfected – however for each one of us it takes time to master this formula. Indeed, it might take a long while, longer for some than for others, but the Rabbeinu Bachye is teaching us that there is a formula that can be used to instill fear in Hashem and to help us repent, specifically at this point in davening.
In a similar vein the Ramban, when addressing his sons in the famous Iggeres HaRamban, writes: “Hear, my son, the instruction of your father and don’t forsake the teaching of your mother (Mishlei 1:8). Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger, a serious character flaw which causes people to sin. As our Rabbis said (Nedarim 22a): Whoever flares up in anger is subject to the discipline of Gehinnom as it is says (Koheles 12:10), “Cast out anger from your heart, and [by doing this] remove evil from your flesh.” “Evil” here means Gehinnom, as we read (Mishlei 16:4): “…and the wicked are destined for the day of evil.” Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This radiant quality is the finest of all admirable traits (see Avodah Zarah 20b), because (Mishlei 22:4), “Following humility comes the fear of Hashem.”
Through humility you will also come to fear Hashem. It will cause you to always think about ( Avos 3:1) where you came from and where you are going, and that while alive you are only like a maggot and a worm, and the same after death. It will also remind you before Whom you will be judged, the King of Glory, as it is stated (I Melachim 8:27; Mishlei 15:11), “Even the heaven and the heavens of heaven can’t contain You” — “How much less the hearts of people!” It is also written (Yirmeyahu 23:24), “Do I not fill heaven and earth? says Hashem.”
When you think about all these things, you will come to fear Hashem who created you, and you will protect yourself from sinning and therefore be happy with whatever happens to you. Also, when you act humbly and modestly before everyone, and are afraid of Hashem and of sin, the radiance of His glory and the spirit of the Shechina will rest upon you, and you will live the life of the World-to-Come!” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We find a formula in the Ramban as well. A formula to strengthen our Fear of Heaven in order to avoid sin and be happy with our lot in life, as he says: “When you think about all these things, you will come to fear Hashem who created you, and you will protect yourself from sinning and therefore be happy with whatever happens to you.” It is a very similar formula: It begins with an action of always talking softly which leads to controlling one’s anger that infuses humility in oneself and finally arouses fear of Hashem. This formula is also not easy to master in a short time and is not expected to be that way. It takes much focus and toiling.
If the perfection of product formulas take a while then all the more so the mastering of a formula which is beneficial for life can take a very long while, possibly a lifetime for many but it is all worthwhile as the Ramban says, “and you will protect yourself from sinning and therefore be happy with whatever happens to you… the radiance of His glory and the spirit of the Shechina will rest upon you, and you will live the life of the World-to-Come!”