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Yitro - Spiritual Preparation

Shabbat, 02/10/2007
Ruth Kertzer Seidman

Today we are going to talk about spiritual preparation. To begin, I would like us to learn the Shabbat table song, “Hineni Muchan U-M’Zuman”. I’ll sing it first, and then we’ll sing it together. (SONG)

How does this relate to our parsha, Yitro? Just before the section we read today, Exodus 19:10-11, God is preparing the people of Israel to receive the Decalogue. God tells Moses: Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.

Then, we read in the first aliyah today, (Exodus 19:14-15): Moses came down from the mountain and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. And he said to them: “Be ready for the third day, do not go near a woman.”

On the straightforward – the “pshat” – level, the people are being told to cleanse themselves and to abstain from sexual relations during this time frame, in preparation for an extraordinary spiritual experience.

I first started to think about spiritual preparation a few years ago when I read a sentence that precedes the Omer prayer in the Breslov Haggadah (the Breslovers, or Bratslavers, are followers of the Hassidic leader Nachman of Bratslav). It goes as follows: “I am ready and prepared for the mitzvah of the counting of the Omer.” So I started to wonder: What does it mean to be ready and prepared? Why is it important to make this declaration? Does one need to be ready and prepared before performing any mitzvah, or saying any prayer?

This then reminded me of the song we just sang. When I was a child, our family always sang it after any other Shabbat table songs and just before the Grace after Meals, the Birkat Hamazon. The song says: “I am prepared to say the Grace after Meals, ready to fulfill the commandments of my Creator”. This is the same idea of preparation for a mitzvah, the blessing after eating having been ordained in the Torah.

It seems to me that saying the words aloud is part of the spiritual preparation. This is what happens on the High Holidays when in the “Hineni”, the cantor’s introduction to the Musaf Amidah.

A more lengthy type of spiritual preparation is available to us during the thirty days of the month of Elul leading up to the ten Days of Awe—Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Elul is the time of spiritual preparation, the warm-up so to speak, for the difficult spiritual work of the high holidays. With their fascination with numbers, our forebears likened the thirty plus ten, the forty days, to the forty days Moses spent on the top of Mount Sinai.

This brings us back to today’s Torah portion. Following the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites were to develop a rich and complex set of rituals – with the Tabernacle in the wilderness and then the Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible gives many instructions on how to prepare for the rites involved. Cleansing was a part of this.

When the Temple no longer stood, the system of prayer we know today was developed. However, we live physical, workaday lives, and for most people, years ago as well as today, prayer, deep reflection, meditation, or other spiritual experiences do not always flow easily. The Mishnah, redacted over a period of time beginning almost two thousand years ago, tells us that the pious ones of old used to wait an hour before they said their morning prayers, “that they might direct their heart toward God”. Some think that they meditated during that hour. Over time, this practice turned into the Psukei D’Zimrah, the Morning Psalms that are read, chanted, or sung prior to the main part of the Shaharit, the morning service. Those at Shir Hadash who are here on Saturday morning when the service starts have the opportunity for what we like to call our “spiritual warm-up”. Some have told me that this is a very important part of the service for them.

I’d like to share with you a bit of my personal odyssey in seeking successful methods of spiritual preparation. For many years I have been participating in Jewish meditation with a local teacher. In this setting, for example, I meditate during the month of Elul in preparation for the high holidays, and during the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks between Passover and Shevuot (in preparation for re-enacting the Revelation at Sinai).

Another approach I have undertaken recently has been some study in a Christian setting with a group of Christian and Jewish “seekers”. A few months ago we learned a technique known as “meditative prayer” and learned to use Bible texts and other methods to help enter into a spiritual “place”.

Some people get themselves into that spiritual place through experiencing nature and the outdoors. Others do it through journal writing. And some find inspiration in great art or music.

Beyond prayer and the performance of specific mitzvoth, all of us face challenges for which a type of spiritual preparation is needed. You may not consider this spiritual preparation, but rather something emotional, psychological, or maybe developing strength of will. You might be preparing for a performance or a speech, a job interview, confronting a troublesome interpersonal situation, making a difficult decision, or a host of other challenges that we all face at one time or another. … Perhaps some of the traditions we have looked at today can be applied to these life situations.

So, here are some things we might discuss:

• What does it mean to be ready and prepared?
• Is it important, necessary, or helpful to make this declaration aloud?
• Why does one need to be ready and prepared before performing any mitzvah, or saying any prayer?
• What types of spiritual preparation do you find helpful?
Can these ideas on preparation for a prayer or for doing a mitzvah be applied to challenges that we all face in our everyday lives? While you and I don’t get an opportunity to stand at Sinai, in our own lives we do undergo transformative experiences, and for these, spiritual preparation could prove to be valuable.