Lots of special times. Lots of marking moments, lots of ritual. Ritual gets a bad rap at times, as if it’s constricting and meaningless. Too much hype and nothing profound. Well, I would disagree. Sure, it can be like that, but not always. I’m a sucker for rituals, so this week’s parasha, T’tzaveh, is a great read.
After last week’s details about building the Tabernacle, a new place to sense the presence of something beyond ourselves, we now move to details surrounding a new group of people within our community. The Priests, starting with Moses’ brother Aaron, enter center stage, in full regalia. And a lot of regalia, which is described in no small detail: the colors of the cloth, the layers, the bling and the headgear, right down to the little bells lining the hem. Everything is made from the best materials, just like the Tabernacle.
But it doesn’t end with clothes – T’tzaveh describes the way Aaron and his sons become priests, complete with water, blood and entrails. Lovely. But the “sacrificial” components are not just for show. There really is a sacrifice going on; these men are about to sacrifice the lives they had before, and enter into a completely new role within the community. Almost everything about their new lives is proscribed here (and later in Leviticus): what they wear, especially when they’re “on duty”, whom they can marry, whom they can’t marry, what their job entails, and more. They are ritual-life, embodied.
Rituals mark time between a before and after. The bnai mitzvah, the graduations, the weddings, retirement parties, births, deaths. We ritualize those moments because we’re moving between a before and an after – and that moment in between, the one that’s transformative – we stop and notice it.
Actually, much of what Judaism altogether is noticing the moments. Some do it by reciting blessings. There is a teaching in the Talmud that we should say 100 blessings a day. That may seem like a lot – and it is – and if it were just rote, like checking off a to-do list. But imagine what it would be like to stop so many times a day and notice. Acknowledge. Be amazed. Be grateful. Be aware.
I think about the actual practice of saying 100 blessings a day. Not all of them could be heartfelt, I’m sure. But it certainly would get us in the habit of noticing, and isn’t that what blessings are? We notice something good around us, and take the opportunity to say, “Yes, I see this, I appreciate this, I acknowledge the source.” This is easier to do when we’re talking about a beautiful vista, a perfect autumn tree, etc. Perhaps it’s not so easy when things go sour, and we search for an indication of some kind of strength or support.
Last night, I taught a group of women for Rosh Chodesh, welcoming the new month of Adar. Their topic was spirituality; the path some of the women have taken to get to where they are in their relationships with God, whether born Jews or new-Jews. We started with a look at the way in which some of our foremothers encountered God. After some study, the discussion turned to how the fact that encounters with God can occur both inside and outside of ritual moments. One of the strongest messages from this particular group was that it took dedication and perseverance to reach the place where things “fit”.
Ritual gives us that opportunity for dedication and perseverance. Maybe it’s not like Aaron and his sons, with the fancy clothes and ornate ceremonies. But spirituality does take sacrifice – being able to give up of yourself, if only for a moment, to acknowledge what is beyond the self.