Several weeks ago, I traveled to New Jersey. I journeyed across the country from Bellingham to Princeton University to deliver the memorial address at the annual Service of Remembrance, which is part of each year’s Alumni Day schedule of events. It is the university’s custom, I learned upon receiving the invitation, to invite an ordained member of the 25th reunion class to serve as the preacher during the Alumni Day Service of Remembrance. As a member of the Class of 1987 and an ordained rabbi, I am, indeed, an ordained member of the 25th reunion class.
I had not been back to Princeton in 20 years — not since my 5th reunion. Twenty years is a long time, years filled with learning and work, love and loss, relationships and moves — life and its moments, riches of experiences. In so many ways, Princeton and my experience there felt like a very distant and mostly dormant part of the past. And then, after 20 years of absence, I returned to that magnificent campus. I returned to Princeton not only to deliver the memorial address but also to engage in my own work of remembrance. I returned to further integrate the various parts of my life experience, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. That is what remembrance is.
After all of the Alumni Day events had concluded, I had some time to walk around campus and the town of Princeton, recalling places, experiences, friends. It was a beautiful day, and as I sat in the sun outside the Woodrow Wilson School fountain, I experienced a deepening of awareness of what a pilgrimage is. On a journey of return, I was walking the landscape of a place I had experienced long before. In the process, something inside me shifted and settled. I experienced opening and integration, as well as a sense of wholeness and reconnect.
On the Jewish calendar, we are moving toward the season of spring pilgrimage. Two of the three pilgrimage festivals, the shalosh regalim, take place in the spring. Pesach is just weeks away, and Shavuot will follow seven weeks later. Pilgrimage is a powerful spiritual practice.
In Mishkan T’filah, the Reform movement’s prayer book, the festival morning service includes a poem by Yitzhak Yasinowitz that reads:
One does not travel to Jerusalem,
the road taken by generations,
the path of longing
on the way to redemption.
One brings rucksacks
stuffed with memories
to each mountain
and each hill.
In the cobbled white alleyways
one offers a blessing
for memories of the past
which have been renewed.
One does not travel to Jerusalem.
What is pilgrimage? It is a powerful spiritual practice of Judaism as well as many other religious traditions. It is a vehicle of transformation. Pilgrimage is external and internal, geographic and existential. Pilgrimage is a journey of return and remembrance that allows us to integrate the various parts of our life experiences, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect.
With Pesach’s approach, we once again prepare ourselves for pilgrimage. We prepare our homes and our selves, our surroundings and our inner beings. In preparation for our journey to freedom, we make decisions about what we take with us as well as what we clean out — what gets left behind. On the physical level, we clean out our hametz. This can mean food items as well as other matter ripe for spring cleaning ready to be released and will lighten our load. What types of clutter in your life waits to be cleared? On the spiritual level, we ready ourselves to begin again.
Pesach is the first of the spring pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot invites us to journey, too. Beginning with the second night of Pesach, we will begin our counting of the Omer. Sefirat haOmer and its Kabbalistic contemplations is a vehicle to prepare ourselves spiritually for Shavuot and standing together at Sinai where we renew the Covenant, when we reconnect and recommit to Jewish peoplehood and partnership with the divine presence in our midst.
Individually and together as a collective, we enter the season of spring pilgrimage. We journey out from Mitzrayim, our places of constriction, into the wilderness of freedom and onto the mountain where we meet God, receive Torah and touch the truth of our experience and deepest connections. What will you take with you during this season of spring pilgrimage? Who will journey with you? What memories and experiences wait to be integrated? What pieces ask to be brought together? How will you reconnect and renew?
What a blessing it is to return, to begin again.