The Prayer Encounter

And Hashem called unto Moshe, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying:

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When any man from among you brings an offering unto Hashem, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock. (Sefer VaYikra 1:1-2)

1. The Temple is a place of sacrificial service

The latter portion of Sefer Shemot deals with the design and construction of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. Parshat VaYikra describes many of the basic sacrifices offered in the Mishcan.  The close association between the Torah’s discussion of the Mishcan and the sacrifices offered in it can be easily misunderstood.  One might conclude that the sole or essential function the Mishcan was to serve as a place for sacrificial service. It would follow that sacrificial service would also be the central feature of the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – that replaced the Mishcan. That conclusion is not completely correct.

It is true that once the Bait HaMikdash was established all sacrificial service was restricted to it.  It became prohibited to offer sacrifices outside of its domain.  Even before the Bait HaMikdash was built most types of sacrifices were restricted to the Mishcan.  There is a close association between the Mishcan or the Bait HaMikdash and sacrificial service.   The Mishcan served serving as the primary location for sacrificial service.  The Bait HaMikdash was the exclusive location for sacrificial service.  However, it does not follow from this that the essential role of the Mishcan and Bait HaMikdash is to serve as a place for offering sacrifices.

Any prayer and any supplication that be made by any man of all Your people Israel, one who shall know the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house; then hear Thou in heaven Your dwelling-place, and forgive, and do, and render unto every man according to all his ways, whose heart You know – for You, even You only, knows the hearts of all the children of men – that they may fear You all the days that they live in the land which You gave unto our fathers. (Sefer Melachim Alef 8:38-40)

2. The Temple as a place of prayer

The Bait HaMikdash was built in Yerushalayim by King Shlomo. After completing the construction of the Temple, Shlomo offered a dedication prayer in which he described the purpose of the Bait HaMikdash. In his prayer Shlomo makes no mention of the sacrifices offered in the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, he describes the Bait HaMikdash as a place of prayer.  The above passages are taken from Shlomo’s prayer.  He describes the Temple as the place for the prayers of the nation and for the individual. It is the place to which both Jew and non-Jew should come to pray or to which one’s prayers should be directed.

Shlomo’s emphasis on the function of the Bait HaMikdash does not suggest that sacrificial service was not a fundamental element of the Temple.  Instead, it communicates the dual function of the Temple. It is a place designated for sacrificial service. It is also the place to which we turn in prayer at times of danger, suffering, and affliction. It is a place to which the nation and every individual comes to seek Hashem and to petition Him for rescue and salvation.

When Your people Israel are smitten down before the enemy, when they do sin against You, if they turn again to You, and confess Thy name, and pray and make supplication unto You in this house, then hear Thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel, and bring them back unto the land which You gave unto their fathers. (Sefer Melachim Alef 8:33-34)

3. There is no agency for prayer

There is an interesting distinction between prayer and sacrificial service. A person can send his sacrifice to the Mishcan or to the Bait HaMikdash in the hands of an agent and the sacrifice can be offered on his behalf. He does not need to participate in the sacrificial service or even to be present when the sacrifice is offered.

This is not true of prayer. In the above passages, King Shlomo prays to Hashem that He accept the prayers of His nation that will be offered to Him in His Temple.  Shlomo consistently describes the petitioner as praying on his own behalf. This is because prayer is different from sacrificial service.  As explained above, a sacrifice can be brought by an agent of its owner. Prayer cannot be offered by an agent.  Only the petitioner can offer his own prayers. No one can offer my prayers for me. What is the reason for this distinction? Why can one send a sacrifice to be offered in the Temple through an agent and not be present or involved in its offering but not appoint an agent to offer one’s prayers?

And Shlomo stood before the altar of Hashem in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven.  And he said: Hashem, the G-d of Israel, there is no G-d like You, in heaven above, or on earth beneath; who keeps the covenant and mercy with Your servants, who walk before You with all their heart … (Melachim Alef 8:22-23)

4.  Prayer is a physical and material action

Prayer is performed by reciting praises to Hashem, petitioning Him, and acknowledging His kindness to us. All of these elements of prayer must be expressed in words. Our expressions must be precise and our words clearly enunciated. In order to assist us in expressing ourselves properly, the Sages established fixed text for the central prayer of the prayer service – the Amidah. Prayer is not a merely mental or meditative process. It is a material or physical action. It is only accomplished through the actual verbalization of one’s words(1). However, pronouncing the words of the prayer is inadequate. The mental or meditative element is also essential. Maimonides explains that mere pronunciation of the prayers formulated by the Sages does not satisfy the requirements of prayer. It is essential that the person be mentally engaged in order for the verbalization of one’s words to be regarded as prayer. What is the nature of this mental engagement? Maimonides explains that the petitioner must cleanse his mind of all distractions and envision himself standing before Hashem(2).

This idea is expressed in the above passages.  King Shlomo begins his prayer by spreading his hands out to heaven.  He addresses himself directly to Hashem.  The image communicated by the passages is of the petitioner standing before Hashem and directing his prayers to Him.

5. An encounter cannot be accomplished through agency

This understanding of prayer provides a response to the above question. Prayer cannot be accomplished through the agency of another. This is because prayer is an encounter between the petitioner and Hashem. The petitioner does not perform a mere material action and thereby, discharge his obligation. He must sense the presence of Hashem before whom he stands. This encounter is the essence of prayer. An agent can perform an activity on another’s behalf. He cannot engage in an encounter on another’s behalf. An encounter is intimate and personal. It can only exist between the two actual participants.

Sources:

 (1)Rav Yisrael Kagan, Biur Halacha, 101:2.

(2)Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 4:16.