Some years ago I gave a shiur on ‘Why we face towards Jerusalem in Prayer’ (see http://bit.ly/2UjbzpY). In the shiur I made reference to various pesukim relating to the importance of Yerushalayim in Jewish history, Jewish thought and Jewish worship, and I explored the concept of Yerushalayim as the ‘gate to heaven’.
Central to my shiur was today’s daf (Brachot 30a) which states how a Jew – wherever they dwell – should pray while facing and focusing towards Israel. As the Gemara notes, “this means that if the person is in the east, they should turn his face to the west; if in the west, they should turn his face to the east; if in the south they should turn his face to the north;and if in the north they should turn his face to the south. In this way all the Jews are directing their hearts to a single place.” This teaches us that the physical directionality of our prayers is determined by where we – as individuals – reside.
But then the Gemara adds a further statement – one that contains much wisdom but which regrettably is often overlooked. Having noted that different people will pray in different directions in order to face towards Israel, it explains that when each of us pray from our different locations yet all towards the same location, “all of the Jewish people are directing their hearts to a single place”. What this means is that personal Israel-centric prayer is an act of national prayerful unification, and though there are many differences within the Jewish people, the choice that each of us – as individuals – make to face Jerusalem in prayer is expressive of our profound commitment towards the collective Jewish spirit.
All too often we focus on the differences in Am Yisrael. We note how this person seems to ‘dwell’ in a different space to me, or how this individual seems to ‘reside’ among a different social group to me. How one is right, and this one is left; this one east, and this one west. And yes, at times these differences can lead to disagreement and friction. But counterbalancing the differences within Am Yisrael is the faith of Am Yisrael, and when we pray, each of us direct our heart to a single place.
There are many things we can and should be doing to help Jewish unity, but all too rarely is prayer listed as one of them. Personally I believe that this is a profound oversight, and notwithstanding the many significant variations in synagogues which highlight our differences, I think that the message embedded in the directionality of synagogues should remind us how we are all directing their hearts to a single place, and how Israel-centric prayer is – ultimately – an act of national prayerful unification.