When were young we always looked forward to Uncle Yudah’s visits. With his broad smile and hearty laugh, there was never a dull moment. And always, at some point, he would lean back in his chair and ask us: “Did I ever tell you about the telephone at the Kotel?” Even though we had heard this joke from him many times we would say, “Tell us again, Uncle Yudah!”
“Well, there was once a tourist who came to Israel, and of course he visited the Kotel. He was very surprised to see a red phone on the Western Wall, so he asked a passerby what it was. “That is a phone to call Heaven,” he answered. “Can I use it?” He asked. “Of course – it is only one cent a minute,” he was told. The tourist continued on his trip and came to the Vatican where he saw a similar phone. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “Is that a phone to heaven?” “Sure thing,” they answered. “And how much does a phone call cost?” he asked. “Ten dollars a minute,” they said. “What?! That’s a rip-off!” he exclaimed. “I just saw the same phone at the Western Wall and it was only one cent a minute!” Their reply was quick to come: “Oh, in Israel? There it is a local call –
here it’s long distance!”
Of course we do not need a phone to speak to Hashem, and we can daven to Him from anywhere in the world. But there is some truth to my uncle’s joke: the Kotel Hama’aravi is the best place in the world to pray. Why?
The Gate to Heaven
In Parshas Vayeitzei the Torah tells us that Yaakov Avinu fell asleep on Har HaMoriah, the place where the Bais HaMikdash would be built. He had a dream and saw angels going up and down a ladder that reached Heaven. When he woke up he exclaimed, “This is Sha’ar Hashamayim – the gateway to Heaven!” Rashi explains that this is the place where all prayers rise to Heaven. The reason is that this spot is directly opposite the Bais HaMikdash that is found in Heaven. That is, if we want our tefillos to rise from the mundane and materialistic world to the holy and spiritual heaven, it is only possible if we send them through the place where Heaven and earth meet.
This can be seen in this week’s sedra, Parshas Terumah, where we begin learning about the Mishkan, the forerunner to the Bais HaMikdash. The novelty of these structures was that they created a location where the presence of Hashem was seen in a much clearer manner. The Ramban (Shemos 25:1) writes that the absolutely magnificent revelation of Hashem’s glory on Har Sinai was minimized and contained in the Mishkan, and, subsequently, in the Bais HaMikdash. In addition to the constant miracles there, these were places where one could feel a special closeness to Hashem. The sacrifices we brought strengthened our special bond with Hashem and provided atonement for our sins. These were clearly places where Heaven and earth met.
Furthermore, the Ramban (28:17) cites the words of the Midrash that anyone who prays in Yerushalayim is considered to be praying right in front of Hashem’s Throne of Glory since the gates to Heaven are open to hear our prayers. So it is quite understandable why Har HaMoriah is a special place for prayer.
Indeed, the Navi Yeshaya (56:7) writes regarding the Bais HaMikdash: “ki Bai’si bais tefillah yikarei l’chol ha’amim – for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” Similarly, in sefer Melachim (I 8:22-53) we find that when Shlomo HaMelech inaugurated the Bais HaMikdash, he spoke extensively about the special power of tefillah there and davened that the tefillos said there should be accepted.
A Tefillah ICBM
Now I am sure you’re wondering, “What does this have to do with me? True, I visit Eretz Yisroel from time to time, and I will now certainly value my prayers at the Kotel more, but what should I do when I am in chutz la’Aretz?”
In the aforementioned prayer, Shlomo HaMelech speaks about what Jews should do if they are captured and taken to a foreign country. When they repent and pray to Hashem, they should do so “by way of their land that You gave their forefathers and by way of the city You have chosen and through the Temple I have built for Your name” (ibid., 8:48). And the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. Siman 94:1) establishes this as the halacha: “When you stand up to pray if you are in chutz la’Aretz you should face Eretz Yisroel and also have in mind Yerushalayim, the Bais HaMikdash and the Kodesh Hakadashim. If you are in Eretz Yisroel you should face Yerushalayim and have in mind the Bais HaMikdash and the Kodesh Hakadashim. In Yerushalayim you should face the Bais HaMikdash and have in mind the Kodesh Hakadashim.” The Mishneh B’rurah (se’if katan 3) explains that since it is not possible to aim ourselves exactly toward Yerushalayim and the Holy of Holies, we do so with our minds and imagine that we are standing in the Kodesh Hakadashim that is in the Bais HaMikdash in Yerushalayim.
Thus we see that no matter where we are, we must aim our tefillos like an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and send it straight to the Kodesh Hakedashim. But we still must explain why. Let us cite several reasons:
The Radak explains (ibid., 8:29) that Shlomo Hamelech requested from Hashem that the place that Hashem chose should be like an advocate angel interceding on behalf of the one who prays there to help his tefillah be accepted. Therefore, we should definitely want to send our tefillos to the place where we will receive that extra help.
Another reason is based on what we have explained in the past – that we do not pray as individuals. We are one nation, and we all need each other’s prayers. Therefore, we send our tefillos to the place where they will unite and rise to Heaven with the power of one nation. This is an amazing thought! My tefillah is not a lone prayer! As I say each word, it flies off to Eretz Yisroel and along the way it joins up with the tefillos of all the yidden around the globe. And then, together, they all zero in on the Temple Mount and rise straight up to Heaven from there!
And finally, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman adds a very important reason. We saw in the past that the Gemara (Ta’anis 2a) refers to tefillah as avodah shebalev, servitude of the heart. Since the place of avodah, of serving Hashem, is in the Bais HaMikdash, when we pray we must do it there, as praying is a form of avodah. Although we cannot actually go there now, we should at least imagine that we are standing in the Bais HaMikdash. This should give us a whole new outlook – when we say Shemoneh Esrei we are like the Kohen Gadol doing the avodah in the Holy of Holies!
So, right before we start Shemoneh Esrei, when we face Eretz Yisroel and the Bais HaMikdash, let us imagine ourselves in the Holy of Holies, standing in front of Hashem. Not only will this give more power to our prayers, it will help us feel that we are having a “Meeting with Hashem”!