Tzav: The old and the new rituals

burnt offering

My days and my house are about to be awash (literally!) in ritual preparation. It’s almost Passover, and of all the holidays of the year, this is the one that breathes rituals. From the cleaning of the house, to the special foods prepared, to the specific, formulaic procedure of the Seder itself, Passover is thoroughly ritual-based. So, with this week’s parasha, Tzav, I ponder the idea of “ritual”.

What brings meaning to the ritual?  Is it meaningful only because others have done these things before me? What about over time – what if the meaning attached to the ritual means less and less? Or does it mean more over time?

Tzav is the second parasha in the book of Leviticus. It deals with the rituals of the burnt offering, for both atonement and well-being. It also lays out what offerings the priests can eat, what they can’t eat, and how to “cook” the offerings.   Lots of details, lots of instructions, which is to be expected, since Leviticus is the “Torat HaCohanim”, the Instructions of the High Priests.

What’s a ritual in the first place? Anthropoligist Barbara Myerhoff wrote, “Ritual is the enactment of a wish. It is a display of a state of mind. And above all, it is a performative enterprise.” For the Israelites in the wilderness, these rituals were commanded, (the root word of “tzav”, the name of this week’s parasha, is command.) It’s not “And Moses said…” or “And God said…” Command. Structure was being imposed here on the fledgling society by God, through Moses, and onto Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons. The people who came to the Priest wished to express either contrition for their misdeeds or gratitude for their fortune. There was an understanding between the Israelite and the priest that what was going on in that Tabernacle was going to work; the rituals could affect lives.

When I think of Passover, some of the rituals seem enormously difficult and cumbersome….every year, every time I do them. That would be cleaning, of course, and the Passover dishes, bringing them up from the basement and getting the kitchen ready for the burnt offerings – ok, hopefully, not burnt! Why still do them? Has the meaning gotten lost, or have I needed to infuse those rituals with new meaning? Probably a little of both. Structure is imposed, and others are effortless – like getting my grandmother’s pots out and beginning to cook with them, making the soup only in her pots. My enactment of a wish? That she were here, that she knows how much her things mean to me. My state of mind? Well, that varies, depending on how close we are to Passover and how prepared I feel! But the meaning comes from the repetition, certainly.   As for infusing new meaning in rituals that have gone cold, that’s why we try to make each year’s Seder a bit different. Years ago, for 15 years, I ran a women’s seder. Some of those readings seem dated now, but they certainly breathed new life into an older moment. New readings, new insights, new Haggadot, new faces at the table. And the ritual works, each year it works, each year it affects lives.

It is a continual process, finding the meaning in the ritual. The whole purpose of the Israelite offerings in the wilderness were to bring them closer to God, and following step one, step two accomplished that. I wish the same for the Passover rituals – bringing us closer to that which is Divine, that which is blessed by the Divine. I encourage us all to find the new, the interesting, the quirky, the soulful, the blessed experience of retelling the same old story, so that the blend of old and new resonates within your hearts.

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