Rituals are a Meaningful and Powerful way to Express our Deep Feelings
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This Shabbat we are beginning to read the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, also called “Torat Cohanim”: Torah, laws of the Cohanim. This name is because much of the book contains a guide to the priests about sacrifices, different types of impurities and ways to purify and work in the Mishkan, tabernacle.
Specifically, our Parasha, also named Vayikra, describes different kinds of sacrifices and offerings that were performed in the Mishkan, depending on a given situation, for instance, to give thanks, to apologize, to expiate guilt, or just to praise God.
Today, this whole ritual described in the Torah seems very distant from our reality, nonsense, and even ridiculous that it required the sacrifice of an animal to approach God, while experiencing different situations in life.
We are far from such practices and from modern Jewish frameworks, there are no intentions or desire to retake these rituals. Therefore, all these descriptions often seem boring, meaningless, and tedious.
However, we might think that, beyond the shape of the ritual, there is something fundamental that we share with the people who practiced the sacrifices and offerings at that time. This is something that defines us as human beings.
I am talking about the deepest emotions and feelings that emerge from the depths of our being. Those archaic affections have not changed over the years. Both, the people in the wilderness and we today have something that emerges from within ourselves like fear, guilt, hate, anger, uncertainty, admiration, surprise, praise, and thanksgiving. These are feelings or conditions that arise from our bodies and our souls, which we cannot avoid. We need to channel them somehow in order to not let them defeat us.
In that sense, rituals give us a framework that enables us to express our feelings, experience them, and limit them. They allow us to harmonize our bodies and our souls.
At that time, when our ancestors felt an unbearable guilt for any act committed, sacrifice gave them some relief. Similarly, by offering a sacrifice to atone for a mistake or asking for forgiveness.
Knowing that with certain actions the discomfort was going to be resolved was something unfathomable. This also allowed them to express great joy for something that had happened to them.
Today, not through offerings, but through prayer, community meetings, rites of passage such as Simchat Bat or Brit Milah, Bat or Bar Mitzvah, Chuppah, mourning customs, festivities; we achieve the same goals.
The uncertainty and fear for what will come after each stage of life, we can express and experience in the various rites of passage; as well as to face painful feelings as the loss of a loved one, or the absolute joy when holding in arms a new being. All these situations fill us with strong emotions, difficult to bear.
With the rituals, we can cope with all those emotions and feelings, we can experience them, share them, and channel them in a more harmonious and communal way.
It is written in the book “ Rituals in Families and Family Therapy “ compiled by the well-known family therapist Evan Imber-Black: “The ritual can be a means by which people find support and containment of strong emotions (Scheff, 1979)” …” It provides security to know that one can experience the deepest feelings but within certain defined limits and with the support of the group” (page 40).
Rabbi Naomi Levy writes in her book “To Begin Again: “We are hungry for rituals because they give our lives a sense of drama and grandeur. They transform mundane routines into sacred encounters and give us a way to express ourselves without speaking. “ (page 237)
In this regard, Parashat Vayikra is very relevant, considering how meaningful the rituals are for human beings, independently of how they would perform them each time. Thus, we can better understand one of the meanings of the sacrifices and, at the same time, understand the importance of expressing our emotions through rituals.
Furthermore, although the way to perform the rituals has changed, we can be aware of how much we have in common with our ancestors.
May God give us the opportunity to experience and enjoy the various rituals that tradition brings us, so we can be able to express our feelings with joy and happiness, with our families and our community, throughout our lives.