The week of Passover will always have a special place in my heart. Two years ago, I embarked upon a 37,000-mile prayer pilgrimage around the world. I met the Pope, visited monks, walked on coals and revived my prayer. I explored a world of prayer traditions across the Judeo-Christian faith family, including some of the weird uncles and crazy cousins. Since Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, I decided to start my journey by exploring the Jewish faith. Specifically, ultra-orthodox Hasidic Judaism, in Brooklyn.
I e-mailed 78 rabbis before one agreed to meet with me. Hasidic rabbanim are a rather private bunch, but I knew I'd stumbled across a cool guy when I received his reply:
Come for a service and then join us for dinner?
From firstname.lastname@example.org. Sent from my iPhone.
The clash of past and present was fantastic. Hasidic rabbis had iPhones? People still used AOL?
I researched their synagogue, which sounded like a happening place. They ran morning and evening services every day plus ten classes a week. While Michelle and I wouldn't be able to attend the "Bagel and Talmud" class, we were excited to attend a service and have dinner with the rabbi and his disciples.
As I entered the rabbi's house, I was immediately confronted with something I'd never seen before. I turned and greeted the rabbi's wife. "Okay, Shternie, I'm going to be really honest, this is weird to me: why does your kitchen look like a spaceship?"
I couldn't help myself.
The kitchen looked like a science project. Everything was covered with tinfoil. The counters, the microwave -- everything was completely sealed. Even the sink was lined with foil, and the taps were individually covered. The bottom cupboards were taped shut. The top cupboards were strung shut by what appeared to be a long skipping rope.
The rabbi's wife laughed. "I don't even notice it anymore," she confessed.
In order to fully please the Lord during Passover, a good Jewish family must completely purge their home of yeast. They start with a thorough cleaning, and then they pour boiling water over everything. Then a rabbi who specializes in yeast-busting thoroughly inspects the home, even checking the cracks between floor tiles.
Then, for good measure, the family covers everything in tinfoil. The kitchen goes on lockdown. Each family owns a separate set of dishes and silverware, which they keep double-sealed year round, only busting them out for Passover. I refrained from telling them the bad news that microscopic yeast is everywhere.
I moved to introduce myself to an older Hasid. The name on my birth certificate is Jared. It's a nice, classic Old Testament name. But with the exception of my friends Karyn and Catherine, everyone calls me Jay. It's what I call myself. So while my given name is Jared, it would be cowardly to refer to myself other than Jay.
"Hi," I said. "I'm Jared."
The older Hasid was so happy that my name is Jared. "I've always liked that name. If I had been blessed with a second son, I would have named him Jared."
Yes, I pandered.
Here was my chance to drop some serious biblical knowledge. "Jared was the second oldest man to ever live--962 years, just seven shy of his grandfather Methuselah."
The man beamed from ear to ear and nodded in surprise. In a thick Jewish-Brooklyn accent he said, "Very good, Jared. I'm impressed!"
I was so in.
The evening was an odd mix of strict tradition and lax rule breaking. One of the rabbi's sons
accidentally shattered a glass in the middle of a prayer, and everyone just kept going as if it hadn't happened.
I asked about a tradition I'd read about called a minion. "When ten people pray together in a room, it's called a minion," the rabbi said.
"Is that why everyone has such big families?" I asked.
They all laughed. "You can still pray on your own or with a few others, but it's better with ten."
"But why ten, specifically?"
"Every gathering of ten is a gathering of holiness," the rabbi explained. "God created the world with ten utterances of speech, there are Ten Commandments, and they are connected. Ten is a whole number, a complete number. Then there are the ten spies. And the ten brothers of Joseph." (There were actually eleven, but I didn't get a chance to ask who gets left out in his calculation.) "Abraham negotiated for ten righteous men at Sodom. The Ten Commandments are comprised of 620 letters, representing the 613 mitzvot and the 7 Noahic laws."
I thought that minion prayer was a great idea, but I wasn't as sold on their rationale. Thankfully, there was a far deeper community aspect to minion prayer.
"Where one lacks, another supplies," the rabbi continued. "We complete each other. Rather than simply praying, each minion tries to help each other with real action. We help each other get jobs, find apartments, start businesses, and so on. Everyone helps everyone else."
It reminded me of the quote "Pray like work won't help, and then work like prayer won't help." Or as Shane Claiborne says, maybe it's time to become the answer to our own prayers.
I thought back to my own community. We were working jobs and trying to get ahead. But we were all doing it on our own, and honestly, it was pretty lonely. Sure, we were there for each other in times of crisis, but we were not really in each other's lives. The early church met on a daily basis; we were lucky if we saw our closest friends twice in one month. Everyone was just so busy. What if we actually "did life" together? What if we shared our possessions? What if we traded our skills and talents? What if we actually helped each other?
I really liked the minion concept. But it raised the question--if a community could meet each other's needs, why bother to pray at all?
"That's an excellent question," said one of the rabbi's eldest disciples. "We believe there are three types of prayers. Most people know the first one, gratitude. We say thank you. Next is supplication. Everyone knows how to say 'gimme gimme.' But praise? We've lost the art today. When you meet someone famous for the first time, what do you say? 'I love your book. I really enjoyed your talk. Your work has influenced me greatly.' Why do you say this? Does his ego need you to tell him these things? No. Will he survive and thrive without them? Yes. Then why do it? Because you're trying to make a connection. You think Henry Kissinger needs you to say something nice about him? Do you think he cares? No. We do it because we need it. God doesn't need our praise at all. We need it. We need the reminder."
The rabbi interjected, "Prayer is not about asking for your needs; it's about connecting with God. The reason we ask is so that we appreciate it more. It's like a son asking his father for bread. You'll be more grateful when it arrives, and your relationship will grow. We ask God for our needs so that we can serve Him more."
The rabbi summed it up nicely. "Let's be honest--none of the laws matter if you don't love others. Our faith is not about religion, it's about the relationship."
I thought about my own prayer life, which consisted almost exclusively of asking God for things. That wasn't a relationship. Passover reminded me that our spiritual journey isn't about "practicing religion" -- it's about living faith.
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