It just happens that in the past week I got two emails from congregants about the topic of Ritual Ceremonies. The first email was about a bereaved uncle asking one of our members to lead the Kaddish service on one of the Shivah nights. “My first time, I got good coaching from a congregant of his temple. I was very touched by this, honored and learned a lot. Those that were there on that evening seemed to appreciate it. I am so moved by the power/support that our rituals offer especially when family and true loving community members are involved.” The second member shared with me a picture of her visit to Israel, where she had an opportunity to go to Masada. There she and others had a “ritual dance.” She was very emotionally touched by it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Hukat, we encounter the mysterious ritual of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. It must have been an intriguing and important ritual to our early Israelites. According to the Torah, and later in the Talmud, the priests are to search for a cow with a perfect red coat, a perfect cow that has never worn a yoke or been used for work. When a cow was found, the priest would slaughter it outside the sanctuary, and sprinkle the blood seven times in the direction of the sanctuary, and then build a fire where the remains of the cow would be burned with cedar wood and hyssop, which was tied with a red string. The ashes were divided into three parts, one for purifying those who have touched a corpse; another was kept for safekeeping, and the third portion was saved to mix in the future with ashes of another red Heifer.
All over the world, people in pain turn to rituals in the face of loss—no matter if it’s the death of a loved one (dressing in black, for example), the end of a relationship (burning old love letters), or the crushing defeat in a Little League baseball game (graciously shaking hands with the winning team). But what’s the point?
Behavioral scientist Michael I. Norton became interested in mourning rituals. He was wondering whether rituals were merely a traditional part of the grieving process, or whether they truly alleviated grief. “We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better, but we didn’t know if the ritual caused the healing,” said Norton. He and his team found that rituals not only alleviate and reduce grief, but also enhance the experience of consuming food, and they affect productivity and morale in the workplace. They understood that rituals led to an increased sense of control, and it neither had to be religious nor communal.
It’s easy to dismiss rituals as just the historical trappings of ancient religions. It could be something very beautiful, but if it has little relevance to our lives today, we intend to reject it. From this portion we know what our ancestors had a way to purify themselves if they became “contaminated” or un-pure. Their desire to be and engage with others in a state of purity is admirable. Do we, do I have the same desire to be and to engage with the other, in a state of purity? I pray we & I will have that desire and need to be in space of purity. Yes, we do have a ritual that offers us to live in a state of purity. The mikvah, ritual cleansing bath, kosher food, the Kol Nidrei prayer, laws of lashon harah, etc. I pray that each of us encounter the need and desire to be in a space of purity. Amen.
A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Numbers and Deuteronomy, page 57, by
Harvey J. Fields, UHC Press http://stangoldbergwriter.com/about/the-power-of-ritual/
Rabbinic Intern Message by Dov Gottesfeld
When I was in 6th grade, I was rebellious. I wanted to make changes. Sure enough, I was expelled by the end of the school year. Seeing the tears in my mother’s eyes, a teacher named Abigail, convinced the principal that she would be able to set me on the right tracks. From the first day of school – in the seventh grade, she assigned me to organize all the committees in the school, i.e. the Drama committee, the Health committee, the News committee, the Holidays committee, the Exhibition committee, etc. Abigail always watched me and guided me. A few years after my graduation from elementary school (8th grade) with honors, I went to visit her, and she told me that she had realized that I was passionate about getting involved in school activities, and she simply let me express that passion. It was a great lesson for me in leadership.
When we read the portion of Korach, as a standalone section in the Torah, he appears as a rebel who challenges Moses’ leadership and authority. However, when we read it sequentially from Be’ha’alotcha Torah portion, the perspective of Korach changes drastically. He is no longer a rebel, but an individual who truly wants to get involved and become a part in the construction of the new Jewish community. However, still having the mentality of a slave who recently became free, he does not seem to have the proper attitude and language to express himself adequately. Moses, being a sensitive leader, should have noticed it.
Recently Korach witnessed the following events: Moses assembled seventy from the eldest of Israel and appointed them as his close associates. Eldad and Meydad, two young fellows acted the prophet in the camp, and the young fellow who reported them to Moses, heard him say to Joshua that he wished that "Would all the Lords people were prophets." It is quite possible that later that young fellow spread those words around the community and Korach heard them. Korach also witnessed that Moses sent "all the men being leaders of the Israelites" to spy on the land of Canaan. He also heard Moses telling the Israelites to "present an offering by fire to the Lord […] upon settling in Canaan. He heard about the laws of the Shabbat, and about the tzitzit, etc. Korach, it seems, wanted to get involved; to be a part of the new leadership. However, when confronting Moses, all Moses could do is "fall upon his face", and eventually bring an end to Korach and his tribe by not intervening and stopping God when He opened the earth, which swallowed and burnt Korach and his tribe.
It was hard for me to accept the interpretations of the sages and the scholars whose wisdom I generally respect and quote. I think that the strength of a leader in situation such as this one should have been similar to what Abigail had done with me; by bringing me in, and mentoring me. Who knows, Korach and his tribe could have ended up becoming productive leaders for the nation of the Israelites.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.