Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
You might recall the very First Yom Kippur when Moses, through his wisdom, passion and charisma achieved forgiveness for the people, for the sin of the Golden Calf. This takes place on the 10th of Tishrei, marking the very first Yom Kippur. This experience of asking for and achieving forgiveness from G-d becomes an everlasting, annual ritual of atonement and purification. One of the specific rites includes two goat offerings; one for G-d and one to be sent into the wilderness to Azazel, carrying off the sins of the people. This ritual is detailed in this week’s Torah portion and read again in the synagogue on every Yom Kippur morning.
It is important to first consider, why is this an annual ritual. It exists because because G-d expects the people to fall all the path. It is understood that we are far from perfect, that we will make mistakes, and so we are given this gift of Yom Kippur as a way for making repair and becoming whole as an individual, as a family member and as a community.
After Moses’ first Yom Kippur, the Torah instructs the first High Priest in a very specific ritual to effect atonement for himself, his family and the people. After many hundreds of years of observing Yom Kippur in this way, after the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis create very specific rituals actions for us, as individuals, in order to achieve atonement for our misdeeds.
We fast. We wear or don’t wear certain types of clothing. We come together as a community. We recite specific prayers. We recite a confession. We tap our chests. We listen to specific melodies…
Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply go around and apologize to everyone, to set aside one day to go around and make things right with people? It could have been like that, but it isn’t. Instead we have an elaborate ritual, and I would like to put forth here, that the ritual itself is important, that the ritual itself has a certain kind of power. A ritual is an act, repeated through time and whose components remain steady through time.
At its most basic, we have the example of a birthday ritual. I just celebrated my birthday this week and with it came the cake with the candles and the Happy Birthday song. When I experienced that moment of sitting before a cake about to make a wish, some deep part of myself awoke as I connected to every birthday I have ever experienced. And I would propose that in that moment the singers as well became connected to every birthday they have experienced.
Rituals create a tether to the past and to the future. They anchor us in time so that we do not become lost as we are confronted by change.
And so, we have rituals for all the significant moments of transition in our lives; for the birth of a child, for coming of age, for marriage, and rituals for the mourners at the time of death. These are moments of transition in our lives in which our rituals create a structure, a framework, and an anchor for us to mark that time of transition. The rituals connect us with our past, with all those who have also gone through these rituals, and it connects us as well to our hopes and dreams for the future.
Rituals help us embody our values. They create a form and a structure to express our ideals. And when we do that, it helps to deepen our commitment and relationship to those ideals and values. When we come together in this Jewish community for Shabbat, whether for a Friday night service or a Shabbat dinner or Saturday morning service, we sing the same prayers our ancestors sang as we celebrate this transition in time from one week to another. We ritualize this sacred pause and express our hopes for a world renewed, as we deepen our commitment to the values we and ancestors hold as sacred.
Our Rabbis, in their great wisdom created rituals for us to mark every season and every transition so that we do not become lost in time or lost from our most cherished values. Judaism is an enterprise concerned with the betterment of the individual and the society we create. Our rituals allow us to embody and concretize these ideals.
Today, the danger that Judaism truly faces, is the loss of our rituals in favor of the preservation of Jewish culture. To liken the Jewish enterprise to a physical body, one could say that the rituals are the skeleton upon which the flesh of culture, of music, of language and recipes, reside. Without the structure of the skeleton, the flesh will eventually lose its form. Perhaps this is an old argument you have heard before and perhaps you do not agree. Nevertheless, I suggest that you take up this conversation as the RJC continues its Jewish journey into becoming.
Barbara Meyerhoff in Number our Days states the following: No primitive society… expects to cause rain by dancing a rain dance. A rain dance is a dance with the rain, the dancing of an attitude…attending, dramatizing, making palpable unseen forces, setting apart the flow of everyday life,… stopping time and change by presenting a permanent truth. If the spirits hear and it rains, so much the better, but the success of the ritual does not depend on the rain.
Meyerhoff reminds us that our rituals engage us in a conversation with the soul, a dialogue with the past, present and future, a heart-to-heart with the Eternal.
May we rejoice in our inheritance.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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