One thing that all major religions have in common is a powerful message of hope. Judaism expresses its hopeful message in a variety of ways, in its sacred texts, its prayers and liturgies, its mandated ethical activity and its rituals.
Ritual is non-verbal communication. In Jewish practice, ritual reminds us who we are and does that through describing our relationship to G-d, our fellow creatures and nature. It creates a space in time when we restore the harmonious relationships G-d intended for creation. We call the Sabbath, for example, a “foretaste of the time of the Messiah,” 24 hours in the present that reflect the way our world will be every day when Messiah finally comes.
Typically our ritual practice revolves around Shabbat and life cycle and year cycle occasions. I’d like to explore the idea of how ritual can work for us in another framework.
Today, 12 days after the election of 2016, I woke again feeling as though I had suffered a profound loss. It reminds me of when my Dad died in the sense that it is both an emotional and a physical sensation. It is jarring to see life go on as usual around me and difficult to reconnect to it. It occurs to me that in Jewish ritual, I have the tools to help myself reconnect in a positive, life-affirming way.
I am thinking of the rituals associated with death and mourning. A Kittel is a white garment worn for the Passover Seder, on Yom Kippur, for the marriage ceremony and in death. What can these occasions possibly have in common? Each represents a profound transition from one state of being to another. It feels to me as though this country is living through one of those profound marking points in its history, one of those moments like the murder of President Kennedy or the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11, that we will look back to and know the ground shifted under our feet. Engaging in a ritual that takes note of this profound transition from one state of being to another seems appropriate.
“Sitting Shiva” (Shiva meaning seven) refers to the seven days of mourning following the death of a loved one. For seven days, a community cares for the mourner, visiting, bringing food, making certain there is a Minyan to recite Kaddish. It is a time for condolences, yes, but also a time to remember and reflect, to share stories of the one who left the earth, to listen to the mourner sharing his or her memories. While the mourning period doesn’t end with the conclusion of Shiva, this space in time is an important step back toward life. And that is something that we, who share these feelings, must do — remember those steps we have taken, those things we have accomplished and prepare ourselves to go back to work.
And finally, Kaddish. I remember a song that I particularly loved when I grew up in my Dad’s church, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was a powerful hymn when the congregation sang it together, and I felt the meaning of holiness viscerally. I haven’t checked, but I suspect the song was inspired by the Kedushah (same root as Kaddish), a central Jewish prayer with a section that begins, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” that is, holy, holy, holy. Kaddish, also meaning holy, is recited several times during every service, bridging between sections of the service and the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the service. The prayer requires at least 10 people (a Minyan, so it is important that for each day of Shiva, a mourner has at least ten people from their community to support his or her Kaddish).
These are the words of Kaddish, with a nod to the awkwardness of gender-specific pronouns. I don’t usually change them for the sake of familiarity and smoothness of flow within a community that allows me to enter a ritual space. I know G-d is neither male nor female but both. I am making an exception because of the context of this discussion, when many whom I know and love are especially sensitive to misogyny in our leadership and culture:
Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world
which S/he has created according to Her/His will.
May S/he establish Her/His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May Her/His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be S/he,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
S/he who creates peace in Her/His celestial heights,
may S/he create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
The prayer is a profound affirmation of hope and faith at a time when one is most tempted to question the ultimate nature and purpose of human existence. It anticipates establishing G-d’s kingdom on earth.
And what is that kingdom? For that, I look to the first chapters of Genesis, 1-3. That kingdom in the Garden, as G-d created it, is one in which human beings live in the right relationship to G-d, their fellow creatures and the rest of creation. It is a harmonious system of differences, without the sense of otherness, fear and enmity that characterizes our world.
The rest of the Torah and all other sacred Jewish scripture, its laws and teachings and discussions, its prayers and its rituals, tell us how we can live in the real world beyond the Garden, doing our best in a messy existence to live in right relationship to G-d, our fellow human beings, our fellow creatures and the planet — and to keep the faith that someday the ritual spaces we create will extend throughout creation.
In a time when we seem tragically far from that ideal, when our leaders cynically focus on our “otherness” stirring up us/them fears and hatreds, when we breed 9 billion animals every year in this country just to slaughter them, when we edge closer and closer to making this beautiful earth uninhabitable for organized community, it is easy to lose faith.
I believe each of us must return to our sources to find those vehicles that help us reconnect to life and community after loss, maintain faith and hope, and do our work in the world, whatever it is for each of us, to create a better future.
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