The Value of Rituals – Shabbat Ahare Mot / Kedoshim Friday April 23, 2021

Solemnity. Silence. Grace. As I watched the funeral of Prince Philip last Saturday, these were the words that came to mind, as the 99-year-old consort of Queen Elizabeth was remembered and then laid to rest on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

For me, though, the overwhelming feeling was sadness, seeing the Queen sitting all alone at the end of the pew in St. George’s Chapel, distanced by what seemed miles from anyone else in her family. We were told that it was because of COVID restrictions – that she and her husband had been in a safety bubble alone, with just a few aides. Still, that aloneness seemed to multiply the sadness of the queen losing her husband, her support, her comfort of 73 years.

But in focusing on the details – the faces, the spaces — I had missed something really important. As Washington Post’s senior culture critic, Robin Givahn wrote afterwards, the royal funeral was a reminder of the value of rituals.

What Givahn was absorbing was the spectacle in its wholeness and fullness. The sound of the pallbearers’ footsteps on the gravel. “A distinct, rhythmic crunch,” she wrote, “of eight men moving in perfect unison across the unruly gray stones. It was a small thing – one of countless small acts, tiny gestures and solitary moments that added up to a display of the humanizing and forgiving power of rituals.”[1]

Prince Philip, like everyone else in the royal family, was a complicated man who left a complicated legacy. He was part of a family of immense wealth and privilege whose members sometimes wear that responsibility gracefully and often do not. Philip himself could be incredibly insensitive or politically incorrect in public comments. The portrayals of him in numerous films and TV shows – most recently on “The Crown” – attempt to show his flaws and humanity in the stateliness of a proud man bound to his duty through his wife.

But the funeral itself seemed to – at least temporarily – erase any negative thoughts people had about Philip. Thousands of people flocked to the town of Windsor to pay their respects despite the fact they couldn’t get anywhere near the funeral or even the procession. Millions of others – like me – watched on television, live or on highlights later on. Most of us are not monarchists – some were watching more out of curiosity as to whether Philip’s grandsons William and Harry would behave themselves – and yet there’s something about these rituals that we find immensely compelling.

Robin Givahn had, I think, a good explanation for that. “Rituals,” she wrote, “simplify the complex.”

I think they rather neatly encapsulate for us all of our emotions and experiences and wishes and dreams – allowing us to cope with loss, for example, by allowing us to show our grief and sadness in a very public way we might otherwise avoid. Hence the scene of Queen Elizabeth, a most private person, allowing herself to be shown on camera to the world all alone at the end of the church pew.

Jewish rituals – including mourning rituals – serve the same function. The tearing of the k’riah ribbon as an outward manifestation of the tear within us, and a sign that we are someone to be cared for by others. The week of shiva, when we allow ourselves time for ourselves. The year of mourning, remembering our loved ones through kaddish one Shabbat after another. The dedication of a memorial marker after the end of the year, as we return to that sacred space at the cemetery, to recognize just how far we have come — from the immediacy of loss to the warmth of remembrance.

Reading this week’s Torah portion, I wondered how Aaron ever coped.

Remember that he had lost his two oldest sons in the episode of “eish zarah,” alien fire – when God not only rejected the unwelcome offerings they attempted to make but also consumed them in the fire itself. They died a wretched death, as Moses told Aaron essentially that this was God’s will. Vayidom Aharon – “and Aaron was silent.”

The bodies were borne out of the camp. Moses ordered Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Itamar, not to tear their clothes or bare their heads – the two signs of outward mourning. They were not to leave their posts inside the Tent of Meeting. They were to get back to work immediately.

But then there’s the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

Aaron is commanded to make special sin offerings at the altar on behalf of himself and his family, to purge the taint of his sons’ transgressions. And then he is told to do the same on behalf of the entire Israelite nation.

Aaron purges the Tent of Meeting, sends a goat into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people away, and then purifies himself, bathing in the Tabernacle and putting on clean vestments.

I’ve always looked at this as so cruel of God. But reading these verses now, I wonder if I was wrong about that.

The text itself says that these rituals took place ahare mot – after the death of Aaron’s sons. But how soon after? It seems to be a continuation of the narrative. But Aaron’s sons died six chapters ago. Our whole long double portion last week about leprosy and isolation and healing and reunion – all that was a huge pause in the narrative. And maybe that was intentional.

I wonder if the rituals described this week are actually meant as a kindness to Aaron, who had remained so stoically obedient and silent in the face of the death of his precious sons. Maybe this was commanded by God to allow Aaron to mourn through the blood and the fire and the water – the public rituals that gave his life meaning in the first place. Without allowing for sympathy for the sinfulness of the boys, maybe it was a way for God to allow the people to publicly sympathize with the grief-stricken father.

As Robin Givahn wrote of Philip’s funeral, “[it] was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.”

All of our Jewish rituals are really designed to do that. Including the one in which we are all participating right now. The making of Shabbat – turning Friday night to Saturday night into holy time in holy space – is the quintessential Jewish ritual. We take a few deep breaths, smile at the faces of the people we are so glad to see after a week of continual stress, and share songs and prayers and Torah. And the support of one another.

Like the pallbearers at Philip’s funeral, Shabbat allows us to be borne aloft in each other’s embrace, safe in the knowledge that we carry each other along, no matter what we’ve been through this past week.

This comfort in simple ritual is all the more important as our lives have been upended for more than a year now. When we, like the Queen, have been forced to live in bubbles, distanced from those we love and those whose company brings us joy. Thanks to science and medicine and public policy and individual commitment, we are close to coming out of our isolation.

And in a few weeks, we will be sharing sacred space for real rather than virtually, for the first time in fourteen months. We need it. We deserve it. And the rituals we will share will help mark this transition back to some semblance of normalcy with joy and thanksgiving.

In time of great uncertainty, rituals help us organize our thoughts and feelings. They reassure us that we can endure and triumph. They create a solid surface – a kind of sacred ground — for us to walk on, as our paths bring us back together.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. And let us say: Amen.

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©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/04/17/royal-funeral-was-reminder-value-rituals/

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