The day we marched out of Selma was a day of sanctification.
I felt as though
my legs were praying.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
Tonight, with several other St. Albanites, I attended the Community Worship Service commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Washington Hebrew Congregation. The beautiful art on the cover of the service leaflet depicted the Hebrew word tefilah in large and colorful cursive letters; tav – pey (a letter that with a vowel point is pronounced fey) – lamed – hey). Written in smaller English characters, inside the Hebrew letters, was the tefilah (prayer) written to MLK by Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965 after Heschel marched with King in the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama.
The derivation of the Hebrew word tefilah, simply translated as “prayer,” is compelling. Biblical Hebrew is a language with a dictionary of about 1000 words, or roots. These roots are most often three consonants sandwiched by prefixes and suffixes, which, with the addition of vowel points to aid pronunciation, determine their precise meaning. Early manuscripts of sacred texts have no vowel points whatsoever; the precise meaning and pronunciation of biblical Hebrew is determined by context.
The root for the Hebrew word tefilah is pey lamed lamed and the meaning of the root is “to judge oneself.” How often do we think of prayer in that way – not as petition, penitence or praise but rather as a neutral (and not condemning) self assessment – am I doing enough for God with my life?
After marching in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel realized that he’d prayed with his legs and wrote a tefilah. Was this new for Heschel – to pray with his legs? I don’t know. But I do know that in my six weeks at St. Alban’s I have seen the the faithful praying with their legs – at the OP Shop, for the Grate Patrol, for Christ House and SOME, and in so many other ways.
Thanks be to God for our walk with God at St. Alban’s. It’s as if our legs are praying.