I have a clear memory of sitting in a Friday night service shortly after graduating college, when the leader of the service walked around the sanctuary handing out transliterations (Hebrew text written phonetically in English) of the prayer service. I raised my hand to make my need known. At the time, I was able to follow along with some of the Hebrew, but having this resource meant I could participate at the same pace as everyone else. While I appreciated that the transliteration was available, I felt a pang of self-consciousness in having to declare my lack of fluency so publicly. I wondered: how many people were too embarrassed to even ask? How many people sat quietly through the service while everyone else joyfully sang the psalms of the Friday evening service? How many came once and never again?
One of the beautiful things about using Hebrew as the language of prayer is its potential to unite us with Jewish communities around the world. A person who is familiar with traditional Hebrew prayers can visit a synagogue almost anywhere and participate in the service. Yet, the very thing that has the power to connect can also be a barrier to inclusion of those who wish to find a home in the Jewish community.
For as long as there has been Jewish liturgy, there have been challenges in making it accessible. One of the first examples of a specific ritual text to be recited by common people appears in this week’s Torah portion.The Torah explains that each person should bring the bikkurim, the first fruits of the harvest, to the Temple in Jerusalem. When the priest takes the basket and sets it in front of the altar, the person is to recite the following:
“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).
The Mishnah in Masechet Bikkurim, Chapter 3, sets the scene for this ritual. In the Mishnah’s telling, the bringing of the first fruits was a time of joyous celebration, as farmers from all over the Land of Israel were escorted by musicians and greeted by the highest officers of the land. People from all walks of life joined together to express gratitude to God by presenting the first of their harvest in the Temple and reciting the appropriate passage from the Torah.
Originally, the Mishnah tells us, the people who knew how to recite the passage would do so, and those who didn’t know had the priests recite it for them word by word, and they would repeat it back. But, the Mishnah goes on to say, some people stopped bringing their produce altogether. Why? The Mishnah doesn’t explain, but the implication is that those who did not know how to recite the passage were embarrassed. The practice of the priests prompting them, while intended to be helpful, had the unintended consequence of singling out those who were less knowledgeable. Rather than draw attention to themselves for their lack of knowledge, these people refrained from coming at all.
It is never easy to admit not knowing something that everyone else seems to know.
It can be profoundly uncomfortable to raise our hands, to ask for help, or to make known the ways that our own needs differ from those around us. Most of us can think of examples in our own lives when we or a loved one felt embarrassed to be singled out — whether it was not knowing the answer to a question in the classroom, feeling lost in a synagogue service, or a child who goes hungry at school rather than let her peers know that she qualifies for free lunch.
Our tradition is sensitive to this embarrassment and the importance of preserving one another’s dignity. The Mishnah explains that when people stopped bringing their first fruits because of embarrassment, the priests in the Temple changed their practice. The priests adopted a blanket policy of reciting the passage word by word for everyone, whether they were able to recite it themselves or not. In this way, everyone would be able to participate in the ritual without fear of shame.
The Mishnah asks us to cultivate an awareness of the dignity of those around us and an attentiveness to what we do not know about the other. When the people who did not know the ritual text stopped coming to the Temple, the priests did not dismiss them as uncommitted, or blame them for their own lack of knowledge. Instead, they sought to include them by making the ritual experience as accessible as possible.
We can learn from the priests’ example.
How can we identify the pain points in our workplaces, schools, and communities, where despite our best efforts to be helpful, we may be unintentionally turning people away?
We might not always get it right the first time, but by prioritizing the value of k’vod habriyot, human dignity, we can work toward a more accessible and embracing world.