Praying From The Floor

Asher natan l’sechvi bina l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylaw……” Who grants the rooster the faculty to distinguish between light and darkness… I try to say these first lines of the daily prayers from the floor to which I’d just fallen. Balatot, standard Israeli floor tiles are hard rock. My tefillin went flying again and I search around me to see if they landed safely or will need yet another trip to Mea Shearim (the ultra-orthodox center of Jerusalem) for yet another expensive repair.

I try to stand, even though a previous fall a couple nights ago badly sprained my ankle….

I have my tefillin back on–this time I must have had the wits to cushion the box with my arms. I’m about to let go of my tzitzit, the eight-string fringe on each of the four corners of my tallit, prayer shawl… The world starts to slide again to my left fifteen minutes later as I shout the words, “Shema Yisrael Adonay Eloheinu Adonay Echad), hoping to resist darkness and gravity pulling me once again to the floor.

This time I succeed to remain upright and push forward with the last of my strength to the Amida, the central eighteen-prayer focus of our thrice-daily prayers. Still in a haze, I wonder what tomorrow will bring my way.

I don’t have a lot of patience with attempts to “sell” tefilla (prayer) and mitzvot, (fulfilling commandments) as being psychologically uplifting, energizing or otherwise as primarily designed to benefit me. Rather, I try to see them as the Talmud does in so many places as an obligation I have to God. While my experiences over the years are overwhelmingly positive and I do often enjoy a “spiritual boost”, that fact really detracts  and distracts from my actual goal, to “do my job”. Tefilla is an opportunity to take myself out of the spotlight and rather, let it illuminate God. In other words, I pray as part of my commitment to fulfill my thrice-daily obligation, as designed by our sages to optimize the world for its eventual repair and redemption. A little step every day….

Fulfilling a long-held dream to return to Israel, I finally settled in Jerusalem a few months ago. You’d think I’d be so energized I’d daven like James Brown, chanting, spinning, dancing  and jumping and howling. Sorry, that’s never been my style and I don’t expect it will ever, but right now all I’m asking is to sit quietly, read the words printed on the page, get to the end of the service in one piece. These teffilot don’t have to get me high, nor make me feel like God’s Best Buddy; they won’t assure me that I’ve done my part to “bring the Moshiach”.

But what I hope to feel is that I met my obligation, that I paid my debt, that I did my part.

When even that suddenly became such a desperate challenge, I began to realize just how important it really is.

Until a couple weeks ago I spent the last four months in a medical nightmare roller-coaster. Switching daily medicines from what was available in the US to what’s sold here in Israel, there was a total breakdown in the system. I was suddenly taking a type of insulin that rather than protect my circulation almost killed me. Totally disoriented, I’d find myself sleepwalking every night–this in an apartment I had just moved into. All too often, I’d fall on the hard floor (and even harder furniture and appliances). One night I slammed into a wall mirror which shattered and just barely missed slashing me. When I call this a nightmare, I’m minimizing the pain and the terror, the discouraged wonder if that was just “the new normal” as I’d passed some invisible age milestone.

Additionally, I was barely sleeping at night and could barely keep my eyes open in the morning when it was time to daven. All too often I’d doze only to awake on the floor. One would think/hope that these moments of total mitzvah involvement would bring some sort of invulnerability. They don’t.

As we sing in Hallel (Tehillim (Psalms) 115:17) “The dead cannot praise God, nor they who have fallen into irresistible sleep.”  It turned out that every night, as my massively improper dosage of insulin bleached every bit of glucose from my system, stripping me of energy and suspending me over the all-too-real threat of coma, the urgency with which I longed to pray, to praise The Creator, to deepen my relationship with The Infinite might well have been the operant life-saving mechanism.

As the old folk song goes, “You don’t miss the water ’till your well runs dry”. Having just moved (once again) to Israel, I didn’t expect to become so complacent so soon, expecting it as merely “my due”, to experience the intense closeness that is available here and so elusive in the diaspora, which come from merely giving voice to the eternal words of David HaMelech”.

You never know when and how your faith and commitment will be tested. And you never know if you passed.

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4 Responses to Praying From The Floor

  1. Jacques Ruda says:

    I am glad you finally figured out what was wrong. Shabbat Shalom

  2. Peter Margolis says:


    First of all, please accept my wishes for refua’h shlemah. Have you perhaps tracked down an American-Israeli doctor who is knowledgeable about the medication you were acclimated to in the States? Also, I bet AACI could point you in the direction of a company that provides a fall alert device and monitoring service until this gets resolved.

    Your point about the purpose of prayer is well taken. Prayer is indeed not intended to convey a peak experience. Rather, it is (among other things) one of the things one does after a peak experience to make sense of it, and to transform a transitory spiritual or mystical experience into a sustainable spiritual life. Life is full of peak experiences, some spontaneous, some catalyzed, some (like the sunrise, or a flower, or just the sense that one is alive) so obvious that they can get past us unless we anchor them in our lives with prayer.

    Other traditions – Hinduism comes to mind immediately, but also Zen Buddhism, shamanism, and others – posit direct spiritual experience as the goal of the spiritual life. Judaism, which does not lack for spiritual experiences both collective (Ma’amad Har Sina;, the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967) and personal (childbirth; the ineffable feeling one gets upon viewing the vistas of Jerusalem) takes up where the others leave off. And since spiritual experience is ultimately subjective, it’s no wonder that we have spent the last 3-4,000 years arguing with each other about what it all means.

    I write this as someone who’s prayer is a rather unsystematic and haphazard affair, but who does not allow a day to go by without it, and who has a siddur always within arm’s reach.

    Shabbat Shalom and see you in a couple weeks,

  3. Rebecca Newman says:

    Harry, I wish you a full and speedy recovery from all of these challenges and hope that your move to Israel fulfills all of your hopes.

    Have a zissen shabbos,



  4. Pingback: Which Torah Will I Receive? | Rabbi Zeitlin

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