The Tachanun (supplication) prayer is also referred to as nefilat apayim or “falling on the face”. This name is given to it because it is a prayer that speaks to our great humbling as human beings. Its words are meant to take us to a place of smallness, which is why it is not recited on Shabbat or holidays.
Because of this restriction, which includes the month of Pesach, we have been left without its power and honesty as Covid-19 has upended our lives in a whirlwind of misery. But a week ago on Sunday, as the Hebrew month of Nisan turned to Iyar, Tachanun returned to our lips. Not a moment too soon. For we have been brought to our knees by an insidious enemy and by weak, contradictory and untrustworthy leaders.
It is fitting that our prayer reflects our humbling.
As the days have added up and the weeks piled upon weeks, rather than grow numb to the challenges of our new condition, we find ourselves growing more and more anxious. Brilliant researchers learn more about the virus every day, but we grow more fearful. Rather than taming the virus, their research tells us that the virus is more insidious, more reckless than we’d previously imagined.
- We do not know if past exposure offers any immunity from reinfection.
- We do not know if six feet is enough “social distancing” or if the aerosolized disease can remain in deathly “clouds”, poisoning the air long minutes or more after its source has moved on.
- We are “learning” so much and we know so little.
- We have not tested enough so we have no true idea how extensively the infection has reached into our communities.
- We have not assessed honestly enough to know how many more of the deaths that have been suffered are attributable to Covid.
What are we do to? What am I to do? I am not a researcher. I am not a statistician. I am not a medical professional. I am a simple man. How am I to find my way through this thicket of ignorance and lies? The truth is, I cannot. I am lost. I am isolated. I am anxious, and I am afraid. I stand before the Almighty as weak and vulnerable as on Yom Kippur. Every day now is a day of judgement, a day of reckoning. Meh anu, Meh chayeinu – What are we? What are our lives? Mah gevuraseinu. What is our strength?
Imagine if, as you lit the candles this past Hanukkah, you had said to your friend, your spouse, or your rabbi that in the next three to four months a plague would descend upon the world, upending daily life across the land, across the planet.
Imagine if, as you lit the candles this past Hanukkah, you had said to your friend, your spouse, or your rabbi that in the next three to four months a plague would descend upon the world, upending daily life across the land, across the planet. You would have been taken away for a psychiatric evaluation post haste! And that evaluation would have determined you to have been delusional, psychotic. Oh, the diagnosis would have rolled so comfortably off the therapist’s tongue.
Now, the delusional and psychotic is reality. Now, we are amid a plague, humbled and brought to our knees.
The greatest anxiety and fear is in the not knowing. The more I feel myself wrestling with uncertainty during these past “Covid weeks”, the more a phrase from the Tachanun came to me, summing up our current state. Vanachnu lo neida mah na’ase – We do not know what we can do.
We do not know.
We turn right, there is crisis.
We turn left, there is crisis.
We go forward, into crisis.
There is nowhere we can turn. What can we do?
We do not know because we know nothing. None of us. Not the head of our federal government, and not those so-called religious leaders who presume to know God’s ways, declaring that Covid is punishment for some imagined or spurious transgression.
There was a time when leaders' arrogance and ignorance might have surprised or shocked us. No more. All the mighty emperors are losing their clothes. We should never have looked to them. After all, “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You?” And yet… we feel bereft without guidance. We are left – you and me – exactly where? What can we do? We have no recourse but to humbly submit that, “We do not know what we can do.” The only glint of hope is that, “…our eyes are turned to You.”
Yes, the Tachanun phrase captures our condition perfectly and completely. In this moment, when we cannot even daven in shul with others, we are forced to look inward without the customary vanities and comforts that bolster our sense of security and standing; we are forced to confront our frailty, our vulnerability, our ultimate smallness.
In the isolation of our rooms, alone and lonely, anxious and afraid, we more easily “fall on our face.”
God, God, What can we do?
Tachanun is so unique a prayer that when a chatan or kallah is in synagogue, when there is a bris, on days of joy such as Shabbat, Yom Tov, Rosh Chodesh, Purim, Hanukkah, as well as during the entire month of Nisan, it is not recited. It is simply too intense, too awesome and too overwhelming. It cannot help but rob the joy from those moments.
But during these past weeks of Nisan, when Covid-19 outran and outmatched us, when our fears have overtaken our joy, we have not had Tachanun to give us the words that matched the moment. Only when Iyar began, were we able to recite Tachanun again. What a blessing! What a relief! To give the moment words is as powerful as Adam giving names to the creatures of Eden – it brings the moment into being.
Halakhically speaking, Tachanun is a part of the Silent Prayer, teh Shmoneh Esrei. Rambam teaches that it is part of the Amidah and that therefore the concluding Kaddish Titkabel is recited only after Tachanun. It is, if you will, an addendum to the Shmoneh Esrei. Even so, it is radically different than the Shmoneh Esrei.
The Shmoneh Esrei, the all-encompassing prayer of nineteen blessings when we reverently stand before God with praise, shevach, with all our individual and communal needs and requests, concluding with our ho’daah and gratitude – is recited standing erect with our feet together before God. Our posture is as in a personal meeting before our King; I am standing before the ultimate royalty. I bow and show my supplication as appropriate before such an awesome and powerful presence.
I am uplifted by having the opportunity to come before my King three times a day even as my presence uplifts Him.
I have read stories of people who are brought before earthly kings and queens; how they are instructed where to stand, what to say or not say, when to bow, how to bow – in other words, in the ways to behave in the presence of royalty. How much more should I be prepared to come before the King of Kings! I had better know what to say and how to say it, when to bow and how to stand. My feet together demonstrate submission to God’s authority.
It is true that Shmoneh Esrei represents the fullness of my petition before God but after the discipline of my formal petition, my heart is bursting; I want to break through and beseech God with the fullness of my emotion. Certainly, that is true now, during this time of Covid-19! But the formality of the Shmoneh Esrei does not allow for my full passion and emotion; it does not allow for my wanting to shout aloud all that is in my heart and soul! I want to express feelings not easily expressed with my feet together, as I stand erect before my King.
We no longer prostrate ourselves on the floor as in Temple times but spiritually and emotionally, I fall before Him.
I want to fall before my Master and cry out to Him. I want to “fall on my face” and shout my words without structure or discipline. “Listen to my words, God! Listen as I prostrate myself before you!” We no longer prostrate ourselves on the floor as in Temple times but spiritually and emotionally, I fall before Him.
I want to cry out as King David did, “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.”
My passionate cry is not Shmoneh Esrei. It is Tachanun. It is the begging, pleading, shameless neediness of the beaten and humbled. “I cannot go forward, Lord. I don’t know what to do. Help me!”
In my abject need, I am confident of one thing and one thing only – He won’t forsake me. He has heard my pleas. The Lord will accept my prayer.
* * *
I honor the brilliant researchers and doctors who are working so hard to understand the intricacies of this lethal virus and tame it. But the truth is, there is no way out of this tzara but by God’s hand. Only He can extricate us from Covid 19.
Vanachnu lo neida ma naase – We do not know what to do, but our eyes are turned to You!
That says it all. The Shela explains that after standing, sitting, and prostrating we end with this blunt statement. We are at our wit’s end; there is nothing more we can think of.
But - How dare we speak to God this way! Who are we to fall on our face and cry out with such passion? We are the ones following the example of Moshe and Aaron, for they did precisely this in their helplessness when confronting the sin of the spies and the challenge of Korach. Joshua too prostrated himself after the disaster at Ai. And Esther before the king, desperate and forlorn “fell and pleaded” as she cried out that, “we have been sold, I and my people, for death and destruction.” They taught us what to do when we confront a situation which leaves us beaten, scared, confused and lost. They taught us what to do and what to say even after we have prayed.
Yes, after we have prayed, after we have approached the King with the formality, dignity and honor He deserves we can do nothing more than to fall on our faces and cry, cry out to God because nafshi nivala meod – My soul is in anguish, and You. O Lord… how long?
“I drench my bed, I soak my couch with my tears”
Beaten. Humbled. Frightened. Lost. We fall on our faces so that God sees the “real me”, the real me oisgeshtrekt; so that He sees me laid out before Him, prostrating, crying out in Tachanun. He sees the real me – and I know the truth of my condition, that when all else has failed and there is no rational basis for God’s favor, I have no choice but to throw myself on the ground and beseech Him for mercy. At that moment, when I am most vulnerable I realize that all I have is my helplessness.
What then is Tachanun – nefilat apayim? Why is it the vital prayer for this moment? Rabbenu Bachaya finds three different elements as the inner meaning of Tachanun.
-The first element is “the awe of heaven” which assumes shame and modesty. Covering one’s face signifies humility and shame; a feeling of unworthiness.
-The second element is “showing suffering and submission.” Submission is necessary for repentance. It is only when we are genuinely repentant that our prayers are accepted. Our suffering “works” not because we are worthy, quite the opposite. We suffer because we are not worthy. But God feels our suffering and shares our pain, which leads to His graciousness.
-The third element is “to show the arresting of one’s senses and the nullification of one’s feelings.” One who falls on his face covers his eyes and seals his mouth; he is so lost in his humility that he no longer thinks about his own injury or benefit. In other words, nefilat apayim is a way to “turn oneself off” which leads to a complete submission to the will of God.
All three resonate now, during this time of Covid, as we fall on our faces, begging for God’s mercy and compassion.
Tachanun is an expression of desperation; it is the primal scream of our desperation. “I fall on my face in tachanun to you God! From the depths I call on You Hashem!”
It is no longer Nisan; it is Iyar. Tachanun is back.
Iyar – aleph, yud, yud, reish. Iyar, an acronym for Ani Hashem Rofecha – I God am your Healer. Only God can heal.
Covid-19 calls for Tachanun, not disinfectants.
Some of the insights regarding Tachanun are based on Rav Ezra Bick’s Shiur #16 – Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is a long time educator, author and lecturer. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" is published by KTAV. His "Kos Eliyahu - Insights into the Haggadah and Pesach" was translated into Hebrew and published by Mosad Harav Kook. His writings regularly appear on the web..