Vayikra: Tradition and Ritual

offering upIs tradition the same as a ritual?

Does a ritual have more or less meaning over time?

Where does the meaning come from in the first place? From outside yourself, or from within?

How do communal rituals compare to individual, personal rituals?

Welcome to Vayikra, Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, and the one in which it is the easiest to get “lost in the weeds.” Any of those questions could spark a lot of conversation. This first parasha, which is the name of the book (Vayikra) begins “And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” So begins a very long list of burnt offerings to God – cattle, sheep, goat, bird, or flour and oil. It’s all instructions for the priests, how to accept these offerings, and make them holy for their purpose.

There are a LOT of rules here. But how do they affect the ritual themselves? Are the rules the ritual? If you do something over and over again, and then change the ritual, what happens to its meaning?

Is it deeper or is it just rote?

In a couple of weeks, many of us will be sitting down together for a Jewish ritual that is carried out more than any other in America – the Passover Seder.  There is a set way to do things, and yet it is one of the more rewritten scripts around. Liturgy doesn’t change, but the Haggadah, the “script” has countless variations. The story is foundational, the treatment changes. Traditional, feminist, social justice, immigrant, environmental, children’s, the list goes on.

So what stays and what gets changed, but still maintains the essence of the ritual?

I think you have to do the ritual enough times to feel the essence, before you start making changes. I had to live through enough Maxwell House Seders before I knew how I wanted to change it. (No matter how much my sisters and I laugh at the memory, I can definitely do without the “from whence canst thou deduce that with the finger of God there were 10 plagues….”)And now, I look for ways to make each Seder different, but I had to know different from what.

For the Israelites in the wilderness, the offerings of Vayikra were about opening themselves up to the presence of God, to feel closer to God, to organize the chaotic life of a wandering community into a cohesive society. We still need that; though the rituals may have changed, the foundation is the same.

Knowing there are so many people around the world who will be sitting down to share the Seder experience brings depth and breadth to the ritual for me. Ritual meaning comes from within and from outside, converging into memorable experience for those who seek to come closer to the holy.

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