Growing up in a Methodist household, I was not exposed to the use of rituals in services. That experience was restricted to the times we visited my father’s cousin, a high Anglican priest. Those services were magical. I loved the darkened chancel. I enjoyed the sound of the music and the smell of the incense as he processed down the aisle in his robes, chanting psalms.
Those services spoke to me. They bound the congregation in a unity of ritual that was removed from everyday life. The mundane disappeared and something transcending the ordinary happened.
During our High Holiday services, we have a chance to experience such a feeling. The ritual, for me, is the best part of the holidays.
Let me share with you what an indigenous writer has to say about ritual. It comes pretty close to what I mean.
“I’ve discovered, in my life as a tribal person, that rituals ground you,” wrote Richard Wagamese, in his autobiography, One Native Life.
“They don’t need to be elaborate in their solemnity or deeply devotional in the application to affect you that way. No matter how slight or insignificant, rituals connect you to the people you share your home and your planet with. They allow you freedom to breathe.… (In the events of daily life) all these things root me, like the rituals of prayer, smudging and sweat lodges.… When you gather with others for the sublime purpose of being together, the strength of that ritual binds you, shapes you, maybe even saves you.”
While we do not use smudge sticks or sweat lodges in our rituals, we do have ceremonies that, in the grandeur of Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur, aim to raise us above the ordinary. Throughout the month of Elul, we sound the shofar. On Yom Kippur, we read about the scapegoat ceremony and hold our own solemn service. On the Day of Atonement, we can (virtually) re-enact the transcendent entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur morning.
These services cannot be approached lightly. They are almost too intense for young people to absorb. Happily, there are times when they can hang out in the front of the shul with their friends, shul-hop or even drop into the service when the mood takes them. That is how it should be.
For me, after 50-plus years, these rituals mean not just lots of cooking for holiday meals, but being with a congregation that is at this time at its best, a community that’s drawn into the services by the need to encounter the ineffable together. On Pesach, the family is central. But for the High Holidays, we need a whole community to truly experience what it means to belong to this tribe.
‘The high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies was a moment of peril, as everything depended on him performing the ritual perfectly. Life and death hung in the balance’
In his memoir, Wagamese described a “sacred bundle” containing objects with spiritual meaning that was opened at ceremonies once a year. He wrote that the bundle “would reenergize us and prepare us for the spiritual work we will do over the next four seasons.”
So it is with the rituals we are soon to re-enact: the sound of the shofar to reawaken us to the challenges of the new year; the fast of Yom Kippur, an ancient “cleanse” of the spirit, not the body; and the coming together with people we may not see for the rest of the year, but people who are part of our tribe and who share our history.
Some scholars believe that secular theatre evolved out of religious ritual. The Avodah service on Yom Kippur, described in Mishnah Yoma and recited during the service, would fit that theory. The high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies was a moment of peril, as everything depended on him performing the ritual perfectly. Life and death hung in the balance; judgment and mercy contended for the soul of the nation. It was theatre of the sacred.
No wonder his emergence, unscathed, caused a shout of “baruch shem kavod malkuto le’olam va-ed!”
Have a healthy and blessed new year.