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The Personal Pilgrimage

09/15/2022 04:49:13 PM


This weeks’ Torah portion, Ki Tavo, includes descriptions of two important Jewish rituals. One was an imposing, even awe-inspiring spectacle which engaged all of the tribes together, atop two mountains. The other, the offering of the first fruits, was performed in community, but each person came and made their own declaration, an individual expression of personal spirituality. These two rituals offer us some important lessons for how we think of prayer today, especially as we approach the High Holiday season.

Ki Tavo specifies that the mass ritual to be followed as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan. They are to assemble, divided by tribes, on two prominent mountaintops, Gerizim and Ebal. The Levites are then to proclaim a litany of blessings and curses, a moral code for the people. The people will be warned yet again against theft, adultery, idolatry and other serious offenses. This ritual was certainly very imposing, perhaps even awe-inspiring but was in fact performed exactly once. Joshua followed it to the letter shortly after the Israelites crossed the Jordan, and then it was never repeated.

In contrast, the ritual of the first fruits (though conducted at the Temple on the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot) was a much more individual practice. Each Israelite brought the prime of their own harvest, and recited a short formula, in the first person. Each Israelite thanked God for redeeming them  in days of old and providing for their needs, and asking for blessing in the days ahead. This ritual was conducted every year, and even after the destruction of the Temple, its liturgy was retained as a core aspect of the Passover seder.

These two ceremonies reflect two different types of spiritual need. Sometimes, our soul benefits from being part of a service which is imposing, even awe-inspiring.  We see ourselves as part of a great mass of our people, being reminded of grand ideas and moral obligations. The one time that it was conducted, the mountaintop ceremony fulfilled this role. For some today, the High Holidays meet this need for pomp and circumstance, but that type of experience is only open to us a few days a year.

Other times, we benefit from a service which is more intimate, which even if it takes place in a shared holy space, has a more personal, and regular aspect.  We can express appreciation for the simple and everyday, and speak of our gratitude and basic needs. Rather than wait for an annual burst of spiritual energy, we build our faith over the course of a year. This later experience is reflected in the process of daily minyan. The liturgy of the daily service includes prayers not found on Sabbath or festivals, prayers which reflect our daily needs. We pray for wisdom, forgiveness, financial success, health, justice, and peace. 

At B’nai Torah, our daily minyan offers the opportunity to have a more homespun, informal experience. The morning service begins at 7:00 AM (9:00 on Sundays and holidays) and lasts 30-45 minutes. The evening service, (6:15 PM Sunday through Thursday) packs a lot of prayer into 15-20 minutes. Those who have attended often shared with me that it is particularly meaningful to them to be part of a group where their presence is truly felt. When you are just one among a crowd of hundreds or thousands, you risk feeling insignificant. In contrast, there is a very special feeling that comes from being “the tenth” who makes the minyan possible. While the service moves quickly, you are free to focus on the prayers that speak to you, and all of our rabbis are happy to help you learn more. When you are asked to help, or when the spirit moves you, please take advantage of this opportunity for a very personal pilgrimage that need not wait for a unique occasion.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784