From all the emphasis placed on korbanot (sacrifices) in the daily prayer services one might conclude that the centerpiece of Jewish ritual is the slaughtering and burning of animals; that it is this endless carnage that made משכן (Taberncle) and subsequently the בית המקדש (Temple) into the Sanctuary in which God can dwell– ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם (Exodus 25:8).
One need not be a cynic to surmise that there are precious few Kohanim (descendants of Aaron) craving for the ultimate Redemption just so that they will be free to disengage from their professional, creative or commercial pursuits in order to devote their lives to sacrificing animals in the Third Temple. Indeed, Maimonides was quite clear that animal sacrifice was hardly the summum bonum of Jewish ritual, but that it was a concession to the Israelites of that time for whom worship without sacrifices may have been a bit too abstract. Certainly God had no need of animal sacrifice, and with the coming of the Messiah and the return to Zion, such primitive ceremonies would no longer be part of the Temple ritual.
Indeed, among the mystical/eschatological decorative motifs that adorned he walls of ancient synagogues, the sacrificial altars are conspicuously absent. What we do find, however, is the trio of the Ark of the Covenant, the Shewbread Table (לחם הפנים) and the Menorah. It was these three that were recognized as the primary furnishings of the Mishkan and Bet HaMikdash, each crafted or coated in gold and placed in, or in close proximity to the Holy of Holies. It is these, as I have already argued previously, that are the furnishings that define the מקדש, the Sanctuary that is God’s earthly domicile.
Now if we examine the text closely we discover that the trio of Ark, Menorah, And Shewbread have something in common besides the lavish use of gold. Indeed for all three the idea of ‘facing’, i.e. two components facing each other, is definitive.
- Of the Cherubim atop the Ark it says; פניהם איש אל אחיו, and they shall face one another (Ex 25:20);
- Of the Shewbread the very name לחם הפנים describes a bread that had two raised edges that literally face one another even as the entire table is described as לפני תמיד, facing me always (Ex 25:30);
- Of the Menorah we are told והעלה את נרותיה והאיר אל עבר פניה, that the flames should face each other i.e. the three on the left face the three on the right (Ex 25:37). This is even more pointedly described in Parhsat Behaaloteha as מול פני המנורה יאירו (they shall be lit toward the face of the menorah),again with the usage of the term pnei/panim.
This is no coincidence. The face-ness, indeed the facing-ness of all three are meant to communicate something very essential to the Jewish belief system. So much so, that God will only speak to his People from in between the facing cherubim; ודברתי אתך מעל הכפרת מבין שני הכרובים, And I shall address you from above the covering from between the two cherubim (Ex 25:22).
Could there be a message here regarding prayer? That when praying in a group one should be facing others, literally. That we should looking one another in the face while praying rather than sitting as in a theater with our backs turned and watching the action on the proscenium, the choreographed moves and actions of rabbis, honorees and functionaries?
Confrontational prayer allows us to commune with the Creator by communicating with one another. It makes us understand that it is not every man for himself. It gives us a glimpse into another person’s soul and moves us to greater sympathy and empathy for those in need who are praying with and for us.
Sefardi synagogues, even when formally designed, are structured this way – truly like the Ark of the Covenant whereby the congregants face each other with the שולחן, the table from which the Torah is read and the prayers are lead in the center. Hassidic shtiebels (small synagogues) are furnished with tables rather than pews, so that the congregants must perforce face one another. Without doubt there is greater camaraderie, and infinitely less formality, in such an environment.
But in Ashekenazi synagogues, with their formal and frontal structure, there is little chance for the communion of “איש אל אחיו”, and so it’s every man for himself. And indeed such is the Ashkenazi prayer service, a total absence of the unison that defines the shared, articulated prayer of the Sefaradi and Mizrahi Jews, or even the eye contact one can make across a Chassidic table.
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ON A SEPARATE NOTE it is interesting that the rods with which the Ark was transported had to remain in place at all times. Although easily removed, we are instructed never to remove them; בטבעות הארון יהיו הבדים לא יסרו ממנו, the rods shall be inserted in the Ark’s rings, they shall not be removed from them (Exodus 25:15).
Cleary the Ark was intended to be permanently portable and ready to be moved on the shortest notice. Can it be that we were never meant to have a central, fixed Temple? That it was always God’s intention to move around and visit with His People wherever they were in the Land of Israel? Let us imagine the anticipation and celebration as the Ark/Tabernacle was scheduled to make its local appearance. Indeed, imagine the effect if the White House/Congress or the Knesset or any central authority were to move about among the people wherever they live, thereby giving them an opportunity to feel that, whether it is government or religion, it is for and about the people and not the other way around. Life would be very different.