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Where Should the Ark Go?

07/09/2021 11:50:36 AM


Traditionally Jews in America pray facing east towards Jerusalem.  However, in our sanctuary our Ark faces west. One tradition of praying towards Jerusalem (in our case east) comes from the Talmud:

One who was standing in prayer in the Diaspora, should focus his heart toward Eretz Yisrael…Consequently, one standing in prayer in the East turns to face west, and one standing in the West, turns to face east. One standing in the South, turns to face north, and one standing in the North, turns to face south; all of the people of Israel find themselves focusing their hearts toward one place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (Brachot 30a)

So why does our Ark face west?  One easy answer is that is the way the architecture of the building required it to be.  While perhaps true, not very inspiring.  Another answer is that we are facing Jerusalem, just going the long way round.  A third answer, and the one I prefer, is that it is not the direction of the body but the direction of the heart.  The teaching in the Talmud is that we should focus our hearts on Jerusalem, not our bodies.  We are told to focus our hearts on Jerusalem because that is where we are told God dwells.  However, God does not dwell in a physical space, but in a spiritual orientation.  When we direct our hearts towards Jerusalem, Jerusalem really means God. 

When we pray, it is not about orienting our bodies towards God, but orienting our hearts.  Therefore, for me, it does not matter which way the ark is facing because praying to God is not a physical direction, but a spiritual orientation and perspective.  If we get too caught up in the literal meaning of facing Jerusalem, we can lose the spiritual significance of that very action. 

For example, there is a story of a non-Jewish king who wanted to know where the Jewish God was, what the Jewish God looks like and which direction a person would turn to pray to this God. He sent for a rabbi and asked him these questions.  The rabbi responds that he does not know the answers. The rabbi's daughter, however, has a way to answer the king. She brings a candle to the castle and places it on a plate. Lighting the candle, the rabbi's daughter asks the king to tell her which way the candle faces. The king answers that there is no one direction. The rabbi's daughter says that it is the same with God. She says that God's light shines all over and that no matter which direction you face, God will answer. (Sharon Barcan Elswit. The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 668 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources, 2d ed. (Kindle Locations 445-449). Kindle Edition.)

This is for me is the reason that our ark faces west.  The ark faces west because it does not really matter which direction the ark faces.  What matters is that we orient our hearts towards God, justice, the bigger picture and love.  Then no matter which direction we choose to pray, we will be able to find God.

Wed, August 4 2021 26 Av 5781