I’ve always wondered why we pray in a synagogue. On one hand, my parents taught me that Jews believe that G-d is everywhere; on the other hand, we make it a point to pray only in synagogues as if He doesn’t hear us anywhere else. What do we believe?
I hate to tell you this, but your parents are right! It’s a basic tenet of Judaism that G-d is truly everywhere. That is the foundation of the Torah, that Judaism is not a “religion” but a way of life, and we serve G-d in all that we do. Even the most mundane activities can be transformed into beautiful mitzvot when one’s intention is to serve G-d through them, and He is always there to take notice and have nachas from us, inside the synagogue and out. For this reason, in previous generations, the synagogue played a much less significant role in Jewish life than it does in many circles today; the home was the focal point of Jewish life as every detail conformed to Jewish law. That explains the term used for Jewish law, halachah, which literally means “that which we walk with.” We “walk with” G-d’s will throughout our lives and in all we do.
For that very reason we can and do pray everywhere — in the home, office, even the street if necessary. G-d hears us wherever we turn to Him. When we take a trip, we have a special prayer to get there safely. Just as G-d is everywhere, we can pray to Him anywhere.
There are, however, places in this world where G-d makes Himself more accessible, and His Presence can be felt more intensely. In the Temple of old, in Jerusalem, anyone who entered left deeply touched and inspired by the close connection felt there with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.
One reason for this is a teaching of our rabbis, that the Shechinah resides only upon a multitude of Jews. Although G-d is truly everywhere, He doesn’t make His Presence felt the same for an individual as for a group of Jews, the minimum being a minyan of 10.
Why this is so, we can understand with a parable of a great and mighty king. His majesty is felt when he is presiding over a kingdom; he wouldn’t be much of a king if he ruled over only a couple of people. This is true of G-d as well. Although we all have a personal, intimate relationship with G-d, He reveals Himself in the world when there is a “nation” to preside over as their King. When 10 Jews get together in a synagogue, G-d comes to them in a unique way.
We learn this from the upcoming holiday of Purim. Queen Esther, when it was time for the Jews to pray for her and their redemption, told Mordechai, “leich k’nos es kol haYehudim,” “go and gather together all the Jews.” The word “k’nos,” gather together, is the source of the term “beit hakenesset,” a synagogue, which literally means a “place of gathering.”
The ideal is to join the congregation at times of public prayer, to share in the power of community prayer. At other times, one should compose private, intimate prayers from the heart, and speak with love to the Al-mighty. It’s not only OK, but welcomed and praiseworthy in the eyes of G-d, to turn to Him for even the smallest of requests: to succeed on a test, to get home safely, to buy the right car or to get the promotion one wants at work. There’s nothing too small or too big to ask for, as each request expresses to G-d that you are cognizant of His love for us and His control over our lives. All this builds, prayer by prayer, our unique and loving relationship with G-d.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.