Gazing at the Heavens During Prayer
In the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim (90:4), the Mechaber (author), R’ Yosef Karo, rules that openings or windows must be built into a house of prayer in the direction of Yerushalayim so that one will pray in front of them. The Mishnah Berurah (90:8) asks what the purpose of this law is, considering the Mechaber ruled (95:2) that one must point his eyes downward when praying. He answers that the purpose is for one who loses his concentration in the middle of his prayer. To regain his concentration, he should look through the window toward the heavens.
How does looking toward the heavens help one regain his concentration? The simple answer is that one will be reminded of the One before whom he is standing when he looks at the heavens. However, we are well aware that G-d does not literally dwell in the heavens, or in any place for that matter. “…behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You…” (I Kings 8:27). We are forced, then, to say that looking to the heavens will remind us of ideas about G-d that we already know, and this will help us concentrate. I.e., certain aspects of the sky, from man’s perspective, can be used to represent ideas about G-d.
One should be cautious, however, in making such abstractions. One is expected to already know all of the fundamental ideas about G-d (He is one, He has no body, He is outside of time, etc.) before he observes the heavens from this perspective. If a person uses the Mishnah Berurah’s advice before becoming familiar with these ideas, he will likely be led astray by his imagination. In short, the advice is only intended to be used as a reminder for ideas that one already knows.
Try to think a little bit about the sky, and about the aspects of it that can be used for our purpose, before moving on.
The first thing one notices about the sky is that it is above him. One must always know that there is a G-d “above” him, who is infinitely greater than him. When man ponders this, he is humbled, and is better prepared to pray.
Next, one notices that the sky is gaseous. In reality, no state of matter is any less physical than the other. However, one usually associates the physical realm with solid objects, since they are the most dense, or “concrete.” From this perspective, the sky can be said to be the least physical object that we can see. When we are directed to the sky, then, we are focusing our minds further away from the physical. Similarly, in prayer, we must clear our minds of our daily physical activities. This aspect of the sky will also remind us of G-d’s incorporeality.
One also notices that the sky appears to have no bounds. There is no point of elevation that we can claim is the beginning or end of the sky. Furthermore, although one is in awe when he sees the sky from one end of the horizon to the other, he is well aware that what he sees is but a tiny portion of an entity that encapsulates the entire globe. In a similar manner, man should realize that he can have no direct knowledge of G-d, and that whatever knowledge we do have about His works is but a drop in the sea. The lack of boundaries will also remind us that G-d is not bounded by any system.
From the simple perspective of a man standing on earth, one will see that his physical sustenance ultimately comes from the heavens. Through the medium of the sky, the sun shines forth its light and provides heat to all life on our planet. It is from the sky that we receive rain, which allows our crops to grow, among other things. We also notice that despite the fact that the sky appears to connect to the ground at the horizon, it in fact never changes its distance between itself and the ground. I believe these two aspects represent the main knowledge that we are supposed to gain from praying.
In the first two blessings of the Amidah, we affirm that G-d relates to man and the physical world. G-d constantly extends the Hashgachah, or Divine Providence to man. (Although Bnei Yisrael had been chosen as the nation that can relate to the highest level of Hashgachah, it is their job to teach the rest of the people of the world how to channel their energies to G-d so that the Hashgachah will extend to them as well.) Also, G-d constantly demonstrates his total control over the affairs of the world, both in nature and in miracles. In our analysis, this is represented by man’s dependence on the sustenance he receives from the sky. Immediately afterwards, in the third blessing, we affirm that G-d is completely separate from this world. I.e., G-d is not attached to this world, He has no need for its existence, and we can’t use any parts of the system of nature to trace back to direct knowledge of G-d. This is represented by the illusion of the sky touching the earth. Although G-d relates to us in the smallest details of life, He in fact does not change in any way because of it.
The Almighty has thus provided us with a tool for constantly remembering Him. When a person observes the Heavens, he is reminded of fundamental ideas about G-d and how He relates to us. When he contemplates these ideas, he is reinvigorated to concentrate on being “omed lifnei Hashem” (standing before G-d).