Long ago, in the days when we were farmers and shepherds in the Land of Israel, the Torah taught us that when we harvested our crops, we were to put the first fruits of our harvest in a basket and bring it as an offering to God. In this passage, the Torah recounts the only prayer of antiquity of which we still have a record. It is as eloquent as it is simple:
"The priest (hakohein) shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Eternal your God. You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: 'My father was a fugitive Amamean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. We cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me' " (Deuteronomy 26:4-10).
This is certainly not a prayer in any conventional sense: it doesn't beseech God, it doesn't ask for anything, praise anything—no Hallelujahs or blessings of the Lord. It's just a story. A simple story:
When you harvest your crops, put the first fruits of your harvest in a basket and place it on the altar, and recite this prayer; tell this story:
This is where I come from.
This is where I've been.
This is why I'm here.
And so I offer you these first fruits of my harvest.
The essential prayer, the center of Jewish spiritual life, is to tell a story. It is both a story of our people and a story of myself—a story told in the first person:
I deeply believe that we are each alive for a reason. We each have a story to tell; the story of why we are here. At the center of our lives is a spiritual core. This spiritual core, this essential prayer, is a story:
There is no scale of one to ten when it comes to life stories. Trying to compare and rate my life's story with someone else's only keeps me from fully living my own life. It would be, as I have heard Rabbi Larry Kushner suggest, like having a B part in someone else's movie rather than starring in your own. It is not about comparing my own life's story to someone else's; it's about comparing who we are now to who we might become.
Writing—and reciting—our life's story is about paying attention to our soul. In what I find to be a particularly compassionate view of sin, Maimonides writes from nine hundred years ago: "The creator does not decree whether a person shall be good or evil. It is we who inflict injury upon the self. One should therefore weep for it and what we alone have done to the soul—how we have mistreated it" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T'shuvah 5:2). Losing touch with what our life is about is cause for despair, for anxiety, for depression, for apathy. It severs us from the essential connection to our own soul.
I remember watching Andre Agassi's last game of professional tennis at the U.S. Open of 2006. He ended an extraordinary career of 21 years by losing his last match. The crowd rose to its feet. I do not know how long they stood and applauded. But for as long as they stood, Agassi sat and wept, not that he lost—oh, no—but at the outpouring of love. When he was finally able to speak, he said: "The scoreboard said that I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found."1 He went on to describe the inspiration, the support, the loyalty and generosity of his fans from whom he has drawn strength and life all these years.
Each of us needs to connect with what it is that matters most, what it is that matters underneath it all. And it doesn't only show up on the scoreboard or in the paycheck or on your report card. It is not possible to rate or rank this achievement.
"Meaning," writes Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, "is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience. . . . Meaning is the language of the soul." 2
But the story isn't everything. After we have offered our basket of first fruits and recited our story, the Torah continues: "And you shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household" (Deuteronomy 26:11). After you have recited your story, connect with gratitude, find reasons for joy, and find those who need help and share from your bounty.
1. Kathleen McElroy, "Agassi's Speech to the Fans," The New York Times, September 3, 2006
2. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather's Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, The Berkley Publishing Group, 2000), p.170
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.