Forty-three years ago a 20-year-old American Jew set out on a trip to the 22-year-old country of Israel. It was not a religious pilgrimage. It was just a country of interest to a young American who believed that the great social experiment of the Israeli kibbutz movement was something worth checking out.
So I lived the communal life for about a month and then I moved on. That is a story for another time. I wandered around the country for the next three months and my life was transformed in the process. It was not a deliberate transformation, but something that just happened.
Everywhere I went I had encounters that seemed to change my life and the lives of the people I had dealings with. I have written about some of them in the past. So now, 43 years later, I am about to re-visit some of those places and see what happens.
The most significant of those places was the old city of Jerusalem and I am looking forward to the return in a few days. My days of wandering those narrow streets and alleyways is burned into my brain and I still feel as if I was there only a few days ago.
Nothing will be the same. My cousin and her husband, who have lived in Tel Aviv since the 1960s, keep reminding me of that fact. What has not changed is the tension between the groups of extremely religious Jews, the haredim, and the rest of secular Israeli society.
One of those haredim is my cousin's son. He has a family of three and he follows the strict proscriptions of his sect. We met briefly as the Sabbath was soon to be ushered in at his home. It was a festive time with balloons and the bustle of preparation.
This got me to thinking about the meaning of being a religious person. On the 10-hour flight over here a number of haredim were praying in the aisles of the airplane as we made our way over the European continent.
Although my clock told me it was 3 a.m., the sun was rising wherever we were and that meant that these religious men had to begin their morning prayers. I watched as they played out the rituals that I have not seen for many years.
They wrapped their arms and hands in tefilin, the leather straps and the little box upon their foreheads, as they wrapped themselves in full-body prayer shawls. They chanted and moved back and forth as they prayed to greet another day.
The ritual has some degree of majesty and I'm sure it makes those praying feel as if they are carrying out God's work. Those of us who do not feel compelled to carry out God's work every day may have trouble understanding what all of the ritual really means.
Does the praying make the world a better place? Does the praying make the religious people better servants of God? Does the praying protect the world from the heathens such as myself?
I don't have the answers to those questions and I really don't understand much about the power of prayer other than to know that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I am particularly curious to understand what the performance of strict daily rituals means for all of us here on earth.
Do those who pray do so only for the like minded or are they helping to bring all of us closer to God? I suspect I may never learn the answer to all of these questions while I am still on this earth.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at email@example.com.