Three Steps Back and Three Steps Forward

At (or near) the center of any Jewish prayer service is a series of prayers known as the “Amidah” or “standing prayer.” The Amidah is a time when we express, both communally and individually, our most heartfelt prayers. We praise God, ask God to grant us wisdom, strength, forgiveness, and justice, and then thank God for the countless miracles we experience on a daily basis. Prior to beginning the Amidah it’s customary to take three steps backward and three steps forward.

Recently I participated in a prayer service where we set aside the heavy themes of the Amidah prayer and focused instead on the three steps backward and three steps forward.

We asked our middle school students– “If you take three steps backward and three steps forward, where do you end up?”

To which they answered–  “Exactly where you started.”

We pushed a little harder– “Do you end up exactly where you started or close to where you started?”

And a little harder– “If you end up exactly where you started then what’s the point of stepping back and stepping forward?”

Together we realized that taking three steps back means creating enough distance to gain perspective. Taking three steps back means entering a reflective space. It’s a purposeful transition from a state of “doing” to a state of “being” and “reflecting.”

As human beings it’s important to take three steps back. It’s particularly important if we are interested in gaining perspective on our lives.

While Judaism encourages taking three steps back, that’s not the end of the journey. Having taken time to pause, gain perspective, and reflect, we are supposed to take three steps forward. We are supposed to immerse ourselves in the daily business of living life to the fullest. We are supposed to act, to serve, and bring the fullness of our being to everything we do.

As school leaders who are interested in understanding and nurturing school culture we need to make sure that we remember the importance of taking three steps back and not just the importance of taking three steps forward.

Part of our mandate as school leaders is to make sure that our actions are informed by the perspective and insight that can only be achieved by stepping back on a regular basis.

If we can model the balance between stepping back and stepping forward for our faculty and our students then we can help promote a school culture that is mindful, purposeful, and even prayerful.


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