The Heart of Ritual

Parshat Chukat
July 16, 2016—10 Tammuz 5776

            A few weeks ago, on the morning I was flying to Israel for our Hartman trip, I got a call from a member of our shul who wanted to come by and give me something before I left.  A few minutes later, he knocks on our front door and hands me something: namely little pieces of paper with the name of a loved one, and prayers for her recovery.  Would you please put these notes in the Kotel?

            Every year before I head off to Jerusalem this happens.  Our members whose loved ones are going through a medical challenge give me scraps of paper with names and prayers, and ask, would you please put these notes in the Kotel?

            Of course I am privileged to do so every year, as I did again this year.  But at the same time, I am also somewhat confounded by the mysterious power of this ritual of the Jewish people. Lots of Jews the world over do this.  The Kotel is full of scraps of paper with names and prayers.  But why?  What is the meaning of this ritual?

            After all, the overwhelming majority of our members who give me these notes are not particularly religious.  Most are not shul goers.  Most go two days a year, the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning—and to a Bar Mitzvah if invited. Otherwise, they are not here.   If asked, most would say they are not sure they believe in God.  They don’t really believe that God comes down and intervenes in the medical story of our loved ones based on these scraps of paper. Most see themselves as rational, skeptical, secular.  And yet, these same men and women of rationality and science, who don’t believe, or who aren’t sure they believe, somehow find meaning in having scraps of paper put into the Kotel.  How to explain that?

            I never understood it—until this year, when I heard a lecture about what makes ritual so powerful by Elana Stein Hain, the Hartman scholar who has taught here as well.

            Elana Stein Hain shared the work of a scholar named Adam Seligman, who was the lead author of a book called Ritual and Its Consequences. Here is Seligman’s essential insight.  All of us live in a world that he calls “as is”—the world we actually inhabit.

            That world, the as is world, can be hard and painful.  Consider what has happened just this summer, in the last few weeks. Orlando. Minnesota. Louisiana. Dallas. Nice, France.

            The as is world is no kinder or gentler in Israel.  When we were in Israel, in the span of a few days, a 13 year old girl was murdered by a terrorist while she was sleeping in her bed; a father of 10 was shot and killed by a terrorist, and his wife was critically injured.

            The as is world so often feels bleak and barren, and we are left wondering, how do we understand it? What do we do about it?

            Ritual transports us to another world, a better world, a counterfactual world,  what he calls “as if.” We emerge from the as if world with a new strength and resilience and determination to tackle the world as is.

            One fine March or April evening, we are sitting in our own dining room, around our own dinner table.  But the Passover seder transports us to an as if space—as if we were slaves who were personally redeemed from Egypt, so that we are more committed to fighting injustice in our own time.

            In a few weeks, we will sit on the floor of the Leventhal-Sidman Community Hall, with the lights darkened, and candles burning, on the evening of Tisha B’av, which transports us to an as if space—as if we were just experiencing the destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem as we chant the Book of Lamentations in that doleful tune, so that we are more committed to fighting the sin of sinat chinam, groundless hatred and painful polarization, which threatens to engulf both our beloved country and our beloved Jewish homeland.

            On Sukkot, we sit in a fragile hut in our backyard on a crisp autumn night, which transports us to an as if space—as if God were protecting us in the wilderness so that we feel God’s protection as the nip of autumn presages the chill of winter.

            Rituals are most powerful when they transport a community of people from as is space to as if space at the same time—when a whole community emerges with fresh energy for the real world and all of its problems.

            But ay! there’s the rub.  We don’t all agree on the problems of that real world. We see things differently.  Orlando. We see things differently. Minnesota, Louisiana, Dallas.  Racial fault lines. We see things differently.  Terrorism. Radical Islamic terrorism.  How to fight ISIS, what American foreign policy should be, what our immigration policy should be regarding refugees. We see all of this differently.  If there are 180 people here today, there are about 180 different opinions on all of the urgent questions of the day.  We are in 180 different places. We have 180 different needs. How is ritual to transport all of us when we are such a diverse lot of passengers?

            That is where the secret power at the heart of ritual comes into play.  Seligman’s answer is the power of ambiguity.  We don’t dream about, pray for, imagine, the same thing.  Ritual works because it is ambiguous enough to accommodate multiple reads.  There is no one playbook to which we all have to conform. No party line. No one interpretation that is right. Each of us is entitled to our own interpretation, and the very ambiguity of what ritual means makes that possible.

            Which made me think of the notes in the Kotel.  Perhaps some put the note in the Kotel

because they believe that God will intervene.  Others don’t believe necessarily this, but think it can’t hurt, it might help, why not.  Still others do it because in a world where they have so little control over their loved one’s condition, putting the note in the Kotel gives them something to do.  Still others do it as a gesture of friendship.    Others  as a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish people. 

            What is true about putting notes in the Kotel is equally true about the rituals we do here.

            Consider our prayer for healing, the misheberakh. For some it’s about invoking God’s healing power, for others it is about friendship, for others it is about letting the community know, for others it is about at least doing something when there is so much we cannot control.

            That same ambiguity applies to saying Kaddish. For some it’s about elevating the soul of our departed, for others it is about showing love and respect to somebody who died, for others it is about giving us grounding and strength and a community when we might otherwise be overwhelmed by the pain of our loss.

            The secret sauce of ritual is its ambiguity which allows every one of us in on our own terms.

            I was speaking recently with a member of our shul who told me a story, which he allowed me to share.  His father, age 86, was about to have heart surgery to have a stent put in.  His son, our member, wanted a misheberakh made for his father.  This father had once been a man of faith.  In fact, he had once been a regular shul goer.  He had once been a shul president.  But in 1986, his son, our member’s older brother, died of AIDS, at the age of 29.  The devastating loss of his son caused the father to lose his faith.  From 1986, until last week, the father did not utter a single prayer. Did not attend a single service. Not even on the High Holidays.  Thirty years, from 1986 through 2016, not one prayer.

            Now thirty years later, he is in his hospital bed in New Jersey, on the eve of a big, scary surgery, and our member connects with Rabbi Robinson, and asks his father if he would accept a misheberakh over the phone.  His wife angrily said no. We don’t pray. His daughter said no. We don’t pray.  But the father said, okay.  The wife and the daughter moved to the other side of the hospital room.  They wanted no part of this mishaberakh.   Our member put Michelle on speaker, and Michelle started to recite the misheberakh.  As she is praying, the father grabbed his son’s hand hard and held on tight, listening intently to every word, even as other members of the family kept their distance.  When Rabbi Robinson’s prayer for healing was over, father and son said Amen, thanked her and hung up the phone.   The father turned to his son and said he felt “protected.”   His son said Dad that’s great.  But it is so interesting.  You feel protected by that prayer, yet you have not prayed in thirty years.  His father said, yes, but these prayers cannot hurt. 

            Same family. Same moment. Same prayer. Multiple reads.  The misheberakh means absolutely nothing. It means connecting to something larger. It means protection, or the possibility of protection.  It means you love me enough to pray for me. 

            Ritual transports, from as is to as if.  From a hospital bed, vulnerable, on the eve of a frightening surgery, to a place of love and connection and maybe even protection, if that’s where you want to go.

            Ritual transports.  But where it takes you is up to you. Where do you want to go? Shabbat shalom.