Rabbi Miriam's Blog
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/
Ahavat Torah of West Los Angeles
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.