Okay, we’ve recited all nineteen blessings of our Amida prayer. One might think that we’re done, but one would be wrong. There are actually three components to concluding the Shmoneh Esrei: The verse, ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer’ (Tehillim 19:15); Elokai Netzor, a closing thought or meditation; and stepping back three steps.
Reciting the famous concluding verse from Psalm 19 is, in fact, mandated by the Talmud (Berachot 4b). Rebbe Yochanan informs us that we must say, ‘God open my lips (Psalm 51:17)’ at the beginning of the Amida and ‘May the words of my mouth’ at the end. This verse technically ends the prayer, and one can then respond to certain prayers, but not before. Some people recite this verse both before and after Elokai Netzor, while others, desiring to include the ideas of Elokai Netzor in their Amida, say it only after, which would require one to remain silent during KADISH or KEDUSHA until the verse is recited.
This beautiful verse states that we want our prayer effort to be accepted and approved by God. Rav Kook adds that this statement proclaims that even the utterance of my lips throughout the rest of the day should be carefully considered, and continue to be holy utterances. I’ve finished my Amida, but I haven’t finished being careful about the words which escape my lips.
Many authorities see mystical hints in our verse. It has ten words, and the letter YOD (numerical value: 10) ten times. Ten, like in the Ten Commandments and Ten Sefirot, symbolizes spiritual completion. It also has 42 letters and therefore must be ‘the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything’. It’s also the number of letters in one of the mystical Names of God.
Next, we have the paragraph Elokai Netzor. The Talmud informs us of the prayers many rabbis recited at end of their Amida (Berchot 16b-17a). The last prayer listed is that of Mar Brei d’Ravina, he’s the rabbi who broke a vase at his son’s wedding, giving us the custom of breaking a glass (but old-fashioned light bulbs give a great POP!) at wedding ceremonies. His prayer is the template for this meditation.
This prayer, as it appears in our Siddur, has four parts: 1. Guard my tongue and lips from either evil or deceitful speech, 2. Give me a thick enough skin to never react to those who abuse me; allow me to keep a low profile, 3. Help me in my pursuit of Torah and Mitzvot, both emotionally (LIBI) and spiritually (NAFSHI), 4. Thwart all harmful plots and plans against me. The rabbi was clearly concerned about how people talk to and about each other. This issue was as important to him as his pursuit of Torah goals.
Appended to this additional meditation is a four-part request of God: Act for the sake of Your name; act for the sake of your uprightness; act for the sake of Your sanctity; and act for the sake of Your Torah. This quartet, according to many Mystics, reflects the four-sided Chariot of God (MERKAVA) as depicted in the first chapter of Yechezkel. It represents the interests of God emanating outward to the four ends of the Cosmos. We ask for all these things so that, ‘Your beloved ones may be delivered, Your right hand should save and respond to me.’
This personal prayer of Mar Brei d’Ravina has become the traditional closing request, but it can be expanded with our own personal desires and thoughts. There was an effort to transform these requests from the first-person singular to the first-person plural, like the rest of the Amida. I’m glad this never caught on. The Talmud’s suggestions for prayers were all personal, and we should adopt that style and add to them.
But there’s another reason to stay first person singular. There is a very popular custom to recite a verse connected to one’s name before stepping back. Kabbalistic authorities claim that this practice helps us to remember our name, and without that knowledge one can’t be accepted into heaven. I have no opinion on that position. However, I ardently perform this custom, mostly because I love my verse: Search out God, and His power; seek His presence, always (Divrei Hayamim I 16:11).
Rav Kook suggests that some people suffer their own Gehinnom on this earth, because they are alienated from themselves, their source of being. He avers,
‘And so goes the world, drowning in the loss of the ‘I’ of each individual and collective…They gaze at externals…The ‘I’ is increasingly forgotten, and once there is no ‘I’ there is no ‘he’, and, of course, no ‘you’…Our ‘I’ we seek; our self shall we seek and we shall find (The Koren Rav Kook Siddur, p. 196).
Reciting one’s personal verse reminds the petitioner of their identity, and, sort of, acts as a signature to this personal prayer and plea. It maintains a highly intimate and individual style to this Amida addendum.
Finally, we step back three paces while bowing, taking leave of our Lord and Liege. The symbolism of leaving the Divine Presence is so important that there are authorities who say that without this respectful leave-taking there was no prayer. The three steps begin with the big toe of the left foot being placed at the heel of the right foot, and then the right big toe next to the left heel. Then we just move the left foot back to even with the right. This process is based upon the steps of the Cohanim on the altar. Steps smaller than this aren’t considered steps; larger steps are considered haughty.
When we arrive at this point, we bow left, right and center while reciting: OSEH SHALOM B’MROMAV, HU YA’ASEH SHALOM ALEINU, V’AL KOL YISRAEL, V’IMRU AMEN! The One Who makes peace on High, may He make peace upon us, and upon all Yisrael. Now, respond: Amen!
Rav Soloveitchik explained that this statement about God making peace ‘on high’ refers to the angels Gavriel and Michael. Each angel represents one Divine attribute. Michael represents CHESED (kindness); Gavriel represents DIN (strict justice). These aspects seem irreconcilable. Yet God is able to make peace between these opposites. After concluding Shmoneh Esrei and stepping backward, we pray that eschatological reality may soon arrive, so that mankind may achieve this same harmony. AMEN!!