As we conclude our Pesaḥ Seder each year we join together with the Jewish Nation, declaring, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” In that moment we envision ourselves in the midst of this festive annual pilgrimage to our rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem, joyously sharing in the Korban Pesaḥ (roasted lamb or goat) with family, friends, and neighbors.
Pesaḥ is a familiar picture of Temple life. The Pesaḥ sacrifice, as described in Vayikra (Leviticus) 23, is offered by an individual on behalf of those who will join him in his household’s Pesaḥ Seder. It is in B’Midbar (Numbers) 29, though, where we learn of the national offerings – it is these offerings which are commemorated in traditional Siddurim.
Our connection with HaShem spans our lives both individually and nationally. Our days are replete with opportunities for individually connecting with HaShem through both prayer and mitzvot. As we gather in our local synagogues, though, our focus is on connecting with HaShem nationally; we pray as a nation, we commemorate the national offerings.
Synagogues originated as “Bayit T’fillah” during the Babylonian Exile. Without the Holy Temple for the first time in our nation’s history, our leaders, known as “the Men of the Great Assembly,” diligently studied Torah as we held onto HaShem’s promise to restore us to the Land. In addition to the Bayit Din (judicial system using Torah as our “constitution”) and Bayit Midrash (schools for Torah study), they developed Bayit T’fillah (house(s) of prayer) in order to commemorate the Temple sacrificial services. Their goal was two-fold: to use the Torah as the foundational structure of our judiciary and education systems, and to preserve the details of the Temple sacrifices so we would be ready to resume them when our exile ended.
This three-fold structure sustained us during the exile and continued to provide a strong network of community after HaShem restored us to the Land. As we gathered daily in our local Bayit T’fillah to commemorate the Temple sacrifices Jerusalem didn’t seem so far away. Later known by the Greek word “synagogue,” they continued to provide structure throughout the nation, combatting the allure of idolatry in our communities, including even those far from Jerusalem.
The Amida prayer is the pinnacle of each synagogue service just as the sacrifice is the pinnacle of each Holy Temple service. Each Temple sacrifice (Shaḥrit, Musaf, Minḥa, Ma’ariv, etc.) has its own version of the Amida, the “standing prayer” which was voiced by those in attendance during the Temple sacrifice. The design of each service is for us to ascend to and then descend from the height of the Amida.
Consider for a moment the components of the sacrificial system: meat, grain, wine, and incense. Note how each component gradually guides our attention away from our ordinary daily existence, ushering our awareness toward the hidden eternal.
Meat is the most “close to home” in that the sacrificial animals are physically similar to us – they have bodies, legs, faces; we can look into their eyes. Grain and oil are somewhat removed from us – they are plant-based and also have less texture than meat. Wine is poured on the altar and has even less texture than grain. Each component is a bit less involved with the corporeal, providing opportunity to be more aware of the eternal.
Incense offerings, which happen twice daily as the menorah is cleaned every morning and lit every evening, take place solely within the Heiḥol (the front room of the Temple building). Only the officiating Kohen sees the incense offering. As the “hidden” offering, incense reminds us of the intimate connection we have with HaShem as His chosen people.
Traditional Siddurim include a brief study of the national sacrifices during the daily Shaḥrit service – mere gleanings of the exhaustive descriptions in Talmud – so each generation can commemorate and anticipate the national sacrifices, remaining constantly ready for the rebuilt Holy Temple.