I’ve never been, nor aspired to be a congregational rabbi and I’ve rarely worked with or through established institutions. Nonetheless, in my role as teacher I’m frequently asked by people just starting their Jewish journey how to begin.
In the past, I often offered the “obvious” tips: either suggesting they start to say the Sh’ma, at least the first sentence, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָֹה ׀ אֶחָד, Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad, “Listen, Israel, the immanent God is the transcendent God is the immanent God, all One”, on a daily basis, or to release one forbidden activity, I often suggest driving since it almost involves aggravation, for at least part of every Shabbat.
Both are great suggestions as they involve folks in the world of prayer, the world of Torah and the world of Shabbat. I’m not sure, however, that either is really a first step.
Before we can start to take actions based on an active interaction with God, we need to establish that relationship to begin with! Since that relationship is constantly occurring without even momentary interruption every minute of every day, what we need to do is to become aware of that relationship and acknowledge it.
Whether we yet realize it or not, God constantly provides the very possibility of our existence. In the abstract, while equally and maybe more profoundly true, that is already a very advanced recognition and one that takes a lifetime-plus of refinement. But within that realm of providing for existence, behind the efforts of farmers and processors and distributors, God provides our daily food. And while we might not think about God or values or any other “topic” for a day or more, we never voluntarily go more than a day or so without food, so this relationship is ongoing and concrete.
That’s why I now suggest that people begin with a simple bracha, blessing, starting with just one piece of food they enjoy each day. By acknowledging God, our dependence on, enjoyment of and appreciation for Him, we’ve accepted His continual invitation to have a relationship with Him.
You know, even “advanced” practitioners of our Torah study, tefilla (prayer), mitzvot and ritual, can, and often do, lose sight of the core relationship among all the details. It’s the proverbial missing the forest because of all the trees!
This is often brought home when we lose a loved one and enter the Jewish process of mourning. The period between being informed of the death and the actual burial is known as Aninut. One is not merely relieved of the obligation to make brachot, blessings, but actually forbidden to! This isn’t as easy as it seems. I know I’m not alone, in normal periods of life, to reach for something to eat and, when it’s just a few inches from my mouth, the bracha, blessing, automatically animates my lips and voice. In those times when I’ve been in that twilight-mourning period, I’d frequently have to consciously stop my bracha, cutting it short after the first word or two. If I have to consciously not say it, most probably I am unconsciously saying it when I do!
We don’t need to be in mourning to discover how easy it is to lose God while keeping the ritual. So, I often suggest to long-term Torah-learners and mitzva-keepers (including myself) to take the time, even just once a day, to really focus with all our heart and mind on God when making a single bracha, renewing our awareness of His indispensable role in creating the food we’re about to enjoy. It’s not as easy as it might seem to shift even one bracha, one mitzva, out of automatic. We, just the same as beginners, can’t afford to take God for granted.
All the rest: prayer, study, mitzvot merely bring this basic relationship forward.