There is a passage at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion that also appears in the Passover Haggadah. It concerns the prayer which begins:
“When you come into the land which Adonai has given you, and dwell there, you will take the first fruit of the ground … and you will come to the priest and say to him, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went to Egypt, and there became a great nation and now I have brought the first of the fruit of this land which You, Adonai, have given me.’”
These are the specific instructions for the ritual of offering first fruits. The commandment contains one of the few times in the Torah that a prayer is specifically set forth as part of a ritual, to be spoken by individuals.
The rabbis taught that this prayer, unlike virtually all others, must be recited in Hebrew. This prayer demonstrates that individuals were to take an active role in the ritual life of the people; it was not something left only to the priests.
Many Jews today have problems with the concept of ritual, and why ritual is relevant to them. All too often, rabbis, teachers and parents fail to provide enough explanation of ritual; when we instruct at all, it is often the “how to,” leaving out the “why.”
These are the two parts of what some call the worship experience. Rote ritual without prayer is hollow, and prayer without ritual ignores the communal expression essential in Judaism.
Human beings have a craving for ritual, as well as a desire to engage in meaningful prayer. All too frequently, we hear from our students and fellow Jews that reciting “the same words” is boring or tiresome. A challenge for modern Jews is to interpret ritual and prayer in ways that strike an emotional chord and help us connect with the Ineffable.
An analogy to help us appreciate ritual is the metaphor of an orchestral performance. Unless an orchestra practices very carefully, through endless repetition, it cannot play the symphony correctly. Even when the musicians know the music well, there are only rare times when everyone plays together to create an outstanding performance.
So it can be with prayer. It takes repetition to learn the words, and even once the words are known well, only occasionally do we achieve the exceptional state of kavanah (intention) that permits a transcendent experience. Just because we don’t reach the outstanding performance on every occasion is not a reason to stop trying.
Gary D. Simms is a former executive director of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative congregations in the Washington, D.C., area.