The opening of Parshat Vayigash is the source for a practice with which almost all are familiar, yet few understand. Before we begin the Amidah, we take three steps back and three steps forward. What is the significance?
One common explanation focuses on the halacha that every person is entitled to personal space when they are praying. The steps are a way of carving out one’s personal space before beginning prayer.
A second explanation says that three steps represent the conflicting emotions with which we pray. We take three steps backward to show that we are undeserving of the opportunity to beseech God and stand in His presence. At the same time, we take three steps forward to show that through the gift of prayer we are empowered to approach God.
I would like to focus on the explanation from our parsha, which opens with Judah’s plea to the Egyptian viceroy (who unbeknown to Judah is really Joseph) on behalf of his youngest brother Benjamin. The first verse is: “Then Judah approached (vayigash) him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh’” (Gen. 44:18).
In the introduction to the RCA edition of the Artscroll Siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman quotes the 13th-century Sefer Rokeach, which notes two other episodes where the verb approach (hagasha) appears. The first is when Abraham negotiates with God on behalf of the city of Sodom. The second is during Elijah’s showdown with the prophet of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. Rabbi Berman suggests that with each step we evoke one of these foundational episodes. With the step for Abraham we appeal to Hashem’s sense of justice. With the step for Judah we appeal to God’s sense of mercy. We assume the same familial responsibility Judah had for his brother. With the step of Elijah, we emulate the prophet and pray for God’s glory.
When Abraham approaches God on behalf of the people of Sodom, Rashi notes that the verb “approach” has several meanings — it can indicate battle, appeasement and prayer. Rashi explains that Avraham was prepared for these, depending on what was required at that moment. By recalling the stories of Abraham, Judah and Elijah before our prayers, we too indicate our recognition that depending on our mood and needs as well as the events of the world, we too are prepared to evoke a multiplicity of emotions and approaches in our own prayer.
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is spiritual leader at Congregation Netivot Shalom.