God is steps, declared Yehuda Amichai. Such an outright assertion about God was unusual for the great Israeli poet. He was fond of similes that invited listeners closer to the mystery without violating the distance that mystery needs. Among his similes, Amichai likened God to a magician, to a window, to a door, to bird footprints on the sand, to a tour guide, and to the scent of perfume that lingers after its wearer has passed by.
When the poet declared, God is steps, he stepped outside of his poet-realm of simile and became a theologian making a direct statement about the nature of God in the world. He did not invent the name. Rather, he discovered it among the treasured Jewish images of the ancient past:
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground, its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.
Interpreters have long been drawn to the angels ascending and descending. What was their form? What were their names? Were the angels Jacob’s real-time protectors changing guard as he slept? Or were they symbolic intimations of the future, the guardian angels of empires that would rise and fall? Some imagined that the angels signified either the patriarch’s destination—the safety of Jacob’s ancestral home—or the destiny of his descendants among the empires. However, Amichai was certain that the heart of the dream was not the angels, but the steps:
God is steps that ascend
to a place that no longer exists, or that doesn’t exist yet
the steps are my faith, the steps are my disappointment
Jacob our father knew this in his dream
the angels only decorated the steps of the staircase
like a fir tree decorated for Christmas
and The Song of the Steps is a song of praise
to God who is the steps.
What the poet saw was so true to his “I” that it must have been the truth and comfort of the frightened patriarch fleeing his brother, putting one foot in front of the other; God was each and all steps. The poet and the patriarch knew that the angels were only adornments, like the tinsel and flash of a Christmas tree. Neither destination nor destiny was important. The angels’ movements only served to gild that which was stable and certain—the steps.
From the patriarch’s dream-image and the poet’s wakeful imagining, Steps emerged as a name of God. The name formed slowly, in almost geologic time, beginning when Jacob’s dream surrendered its elemental richness from above, drop by drop. Finally, Steps arose from the earth—a stalagmite staircase, growing and blooming rock. Its living truth attracted the poet.
A timeless truth, even one recently named, was as true then as it is now. The patriarch did not single out the steps of his dream. But the poet dreamed his way into Jacob’s dream and made his meaning available to all who still dream themselves into it.
Just so, for the Psalmist, the fifteen Psalms beginning Shir Ma’a-lot (Psalms 120-34) were Songs of Ascents—pilgrims’ Psalms for the ascent to the Temple. The Psalmist did not intend them to be Songs in praise of the steps [ma’a-lot].
At its root, ma’a-lot means to ascend; and ma’a-lot could literally mean risers. The word carries and is carried by a sense of upward movement. But steps that are risers and Steps that are God carry all travelers both upward and downward. The poet’s truth adds to, but does not distract from, the Psalmist’s plain meaning. Irrespective of direction or inclination, God who is Steps supports the journey of pilgrims and travelers coming and going. Amichai thought that Steps deserved to be praised in song.
A wise teacher of mine would often respond to an insight such as Amichai’s by saying: It’s a lovely idea, but can you pray it? Is Steps a functional name of God, or is it merely theoretical and pretty? I have taken the name Steps into the laboratory of my life in order to answer my teacher’s question. Does the name Steps enrich my prayer life?
I have learned to call God Steps when fear—heavy and broad—must be carried and crossed. Steps is the name that I call when my soul insists on movement, but I don’t know whether onward will be upward or downward.
Mindful of Steps, blessed be they, my stride becomes less hurried, less entitled. There are moments in which I am moved to join those pilgrims whose custom it is to proceed for a brief time on their knees—dividing speed while multiplying awareness of each careful and sometimes painful step.
Steps is the God in whose presence I walk, knowing that God who is Steps does not determine my direction or destination. Steps is the God who is ever-present, but not all-knowing. Steps is the God who is with me, whether I am a purposeful pilgrim or a foot-loose wanderer. Steps is the God who is always giving and gaining ground, but making no comment.
Such is the soil—the soul—in which the name, Steps, takes root and flourishes for me. And here is some evidence from my own inner prayer book of how I pray it:
O, Steps! Ground of all journeys!
You are forever beneath my rising and my falling.
You are the level and the slope testing my inclinations
towards faith, towards disappointment.
Another step and I meet you anew.
You are the ground of purpose; mine to determine.
You are my way, whether wandering or pilgrimage.
You are here and horizon; destination long gone or as yet unmade.
Where I meet You is arrival and departure.
I, among the travelers. You, as ancient and present as the journey.
Steps, blessed be they, assures me—comforts me—that onward is the only way. This is a truth as old as the journey.