Praying through Jerusalem and Sinai
By Rav Hanan Schlesinger
Everyone knows in which direction a Jew faces when he prays — we turn to Jerusalem, and in the case of Jews here in the United States, that means turning east. But where should the focus of our hearts be? That is a more difficult question. Surprisingly, many ancient and modern Jewish sources tell us that not only our bodies but our hearts as well should turn toward Jerusalem when we stand in prayer.
To understand why that might be so, we have to go back to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, and to the chapters in the Book of Exodus dealing with the construction of the Tabernacle, chapters which we first began to encounter in the Torah portion recited last week. The Tabernacle built in the desert after the Israelites heard the thundering Divine voice proclaiming the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, was a veritable portable Mt. Sinai. In its inner sanctum were housed the tablets that record those Ten Commandments spoken by God at Sinai, and the Divine voice continually proclaimed additional laws and instructions from inside that inner sanctum even as it was transported through the desert, just as the Voice had earlier echoed from the pinnacle of Mt. Sinai. The Tabernacle was divided into three graduated regions of ascending holiness just as, during the Sinaitic revelation, the people remained at the bottom of the mount, the 70 elders went partially up toward the top and only Moses entered into the Divine cloud that rested near the summit. Just as God warned, during the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, that those who overstepped the boundaries and came too close would not live, so too it was constantly repeated that any who encroached upon the boundaries of the Tabernacle would forfeit their lives. And finally, animal sacrifices were mandated in the Tabernacle, just as they were offered at Mt. Sinai.
After 40 years in the desert and hundreds of years of conquest and settlement of the land of Israel, the Israelites, under the leadership of the wise King Solomon, built a permanent structure to replace the wandering Tabernacle. The Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets was transferred to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem along with the other furnishings of the Tabernacle. This fulfilled the prophecies of the Book of Deuteronomy that God would cause His name to dwell in one permanent place among the tribes of Israel, and it is to that place that all sacrificial offerings were brought. The Book of Deuteronomy mandated as well that the high court of the Jewish people that interpreted and applied Torah law, sit in that same Divinely chosen place, making the Temple in Jerusalem a continual source of Torah teachings, just as the Tabernacle had been. And so we trace a direct line from Mt. Sinai to the Tabernacle to the Holy Temple.
Now King Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, expressed a fervent conviction that this structure would serve as a focal point for the supplications of Jews around the world. Although we pray to God Almighty, our prayers should be directed “through this house.” The institution of prayer developed not as a replacement for animal sacrifice but as a supplement to it, and just as all sacrifices were to be brought to the Temple, so all prayers are to be “brought” there as well. King Solomon understood that our prayerful connection to the omniscient, transcendent God must be mediated by the physical reality of the Holy Temple, its symbolism and its memory.
So in our prayers to this very day, we are to turn not only our physical posture to the site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem but our spiritual posture as well, and in doing so we symbolically turn to the memory of the greatest revelation of God in all of human history, the moment of the promulgation of the Decalogue. Just as millennia ago God concentrated His Presence in that place and turned His countenance towards u, bestowing upon us blessing and instruction, so we respond to Him and to the Law that we daily continue to absorb into our lives and beings, by directing our prayer back through that same holy place.
Rav Hanan Schlesinger is director of community education and community rabbinic scholar of the Community Kollel of Dallas, located on the Schultz-Rosenberg Campus. He can be reached at 214-789-7241.