Walking along a lakeshore one day, you spot a panoramic scene in the water. There are beautiful trees and mountains, soaring birds, all captured by the clear surface of water. It is so crystal clear you think that is where the scenery really is. Suddenly, an evil teenager breaks your reflecting pool by shattering it with rocks hurled in. The water churns, the mud from the bottom swirls up and obscures the clarity, and all the sights you’ve seen disappear. Ah, but then look up from the lake surface and you see the actual scene, those trees and mountains, those soaring birds, they all still exist. Just their reflection is gone.
Was a time when we had a Bais HaMikdash, a Temple here on earth that “reflected” some spiritual beauty of the Heavenly realms. Our enemies came and destroyed it, and thought they had destroyed us, too. Ever read of some of the dialogue between the Romans and the Rabbonim? The Romans boasted of harming our Bais Hamikdash and our rabbis responded there was a Heavenly one they never can touch. Ever.
We are told “una’shalma parim sifahsaynoo” which means that now we can’t do the service of the Temple, we substitute much of it with prayer. I want to share with you Rav Schwab’s outline of what prayer is at what place in the Heavenly Temple. I will do so in cursory manner, but it would be worth your while to read this in the original glory of description of Rav Schwab[g1] .
I have attached a very, very rough sketch to give you a bit of a picture. Be forewarned – I cannot draw a straight line even while wielding a ruler. Hence, the art is off, but the idea remains. If you want to see a “to scale” idea of what the Temple looked like, I would suggest Rabbi Reznick’s book[g2] .
Basically, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ZT”L so eloquently wrote, Jewish prayer and practice is meditation of the highest order. From now on, you can focus on the fact that as you pray you are moving in Heavenly spheres from place to place.
The first area of the Temple is that of the Ezras Nashim – the place where all were allowed. Here we say introductory prayers, such as Adon Olam, a poem to the Master of the World, the Universality of G-d.
Then come fifteen steps upwards which correspond to the fifteen morning blessings. We are ascending to a higher spiritual realm, one filled with additional responsibilities that perhaps others don’t have. Hence, such blessings as “shelo asanee aved” thank You G-d You made me a free person able to take on the additional commandments.
We reach the Chatzer, that outdoor courtyard where folks brought their sacrifices. Hence, the custom to recite Karbanos at this point in prayer.
More steps now, 12 that rise above a floor level, giving us thirteen levels. This corresponds to the brief paragraph that outlines how Rabbi Yishmael says Torah is learned. Torah allows us to gain a higher place in spirituality and there are steps to master it.
We are now going to go into an area called the Oolam which will be where we say Pesukay D’Zimrah. The door in and the door out are going to be very similar. We begin with Baruch She’amar and we conclude this section with Yishtabach, and if you look, they have the same theme and many similar wordings.
Now we come into the Holy, the Kodesh, where we have three vessels. We have the Shulchan, a table with showbreads on it. Representing this we have the prayer of Yotzer Ohr, where we describe the natural wonders G-d sets that allows us to have sustenance. We have a Menorah and corresponding to that we say Ahava Rabba – Torah = Ohr, learning and knowledge is a light to us and the world and we talk about the love G-d had in that G-d gave us a way to tap into spiritual knowledge. The third vessel here in this area is the Golden Altar used for incense and this is represented by the Shema prayer, where we offer up our whole selves to the service of G-d.
We now approach the most sacred of spots. We step backwards to gain readiness and…then, my friends, each day, each prayer time, we do what the High Priest was only able to once annually…we step forward three steps into the Holy of Holies. It is us and G-d, nothing else and no one else. This is our Shemoneh Esrei, the crux of our prayer. When we finish, we back up, back out.
Concentrate now, visualize, connect, and do the work in the Holy Temple upstairs by praying down here.
[g1]Rav Schwab on Prayer (This description is found in the Introduction part of the book).