דע לפני מי אתה עומד
Da lifnei mi atah omed
Know before whom you stand
These words commonly adorn the bimahs and arks of countless synagogues around the world, and presumably serve to remind us that we are in the presence of God (and to stop texting during services).
Instead, could these ubiquitous words carry another meaning?
One Shabbat morning while I was leading services, I was staring at this Hebrew phrase, and the thought occurred to me that rather than that conventional interpretation, this message might be thought of in an existential context. (And here you thought I was daydreaming during the service.)
What if the one who we are standing before is…ourself? The creation story as told in Genesis hints at this answer. The text specifically says that we are created in God’s image.
This perspective is further emphasized throughout Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for prayer itself is להתפלל, l’hitpalel, a reflexive verb. By definition, we don’t pray for something, but rather to effect a change in ourselves. The act of praying, gathering together as a community, engaging in Jewish ritual…these are not actions meant to please some distant and invisible deity. We do these things to bring ourselves closer to each other and to connect with tradition. Our centuries-old charge is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We don’t pray to God to make that happen. We don’t recite a few words in the prayer book, throw up our hands, and say, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s in God’s hands.” Prayer is an inward act–it inspires us to see the world around us and seek to make a difference.
We are the agents of change, and our prayers help to provide the impetus for making that change.
Similarly, it’s much more powerful and compelling to think that it is we ourselves who must judge our own actions. When a person is accused of any type of destructive or dishonest action, don’t we often ask, “How can he face himself in the mirror?” We are perpetually in the position of looking over our own shoulders and evaluating our deeds.
In the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who rushed to the rabbi’s deathbed, eager to get a blessing from their teacher before he died. Rabbi Yochanan, with his last words, told the students, “May you fear God as much as you fear man.” The students were confused and upset–how could such a respected scholar mean such a thing? Rabbi Yochanan explained, “When you commit a sin, your first thought is, I hope no one saw me.”
Know before whom you stand. You’re standing in front of yourself.