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Parashat Re'eh: 118 Goats in Boise, Idaho

There’s an old story about a beautiful synagogue, with many decades and generations of history. As members of the congregation would come up to the bima to light the candles or offer an Aliyah for the Torah, for different honors, as they were ascending the steps, they would duck their heads.

The sanctuary was spacious and open, just like ours. Yet, every time someone walked up to the bima, they ducked their heads!

A family moved to town and visited this synagogue for the first time. They were warmly welcomed by long-time members and invited to sit with the president. As the temple member who was to light the candles that evening walked up to the bima, she climbed the steps, and ducked. The new family looked at each other. What was going on? They saw it happen again when the president went up to give the announcements at the end of services.

After kiddish and motzi, at the conclusion of the service, the family turned to the president. “We loved the service! It was full of music and so joyful. But why does everyone duck when they come up onto the bima? We’ve never seen a ritual like that before.

”The president laughed. “Our old, original building was very small. We often had services in our basement, since it was the largest space to gather. And there was a huge pipe in the middle of the room, hanging down from the ceiling. It was right between the congregation and the bima. So everyone would duck on their way up! We built this new building, but whenever we duck, we remember our roots, our tradition, our history, where we came from. It’s our own special ritual.

”Ritual has a powerful role in our lives and in our synagogue. A ritual is different than a habit, like brushing our teeth twice a day or driving the same way to and from work. Ritual, unlike habit, is something that we do repeatedly, yet it is imbued with symbolism and meaning. We light our Shabbat candles, signifying the beginning of the day of rest. We might wear a tallit or kippah, representing the ways that we honor our mitzvot and the sanctity of this space. We bow or stand or sit at certain moments in particular prayers. We tear a ribbon when we are mourning the loss of a loved one. Ritual takes us from one place, across the liminal, transitional divide, and bridges us to somewhere new. Ritual is familiar and mysterious and transformative and an essential part of what it means to practice our faith.

This week’s Torah portion deals extensively with the rituals performed by the priests, the earliest leaders of our faith. We learn about the clothing they wear, the lamps they light, the incense they burn. Some of those rituals, or their modern evolution, are with us today - like wearing a special garment, like a tallit or robe, or the kindling of light to sanctify space and time.

As in our story, ritual offers us an opportunity. We can engage with the ritual, connecting with its meaning. For the members of that temple, for those who were in the know, the ritual of ducking gave them a chance to connect with their history. However, when ritual is not examined or renewed, it can become little more than habit. A hundred years later after our story, it’s unlikely that anyone in that synagogue would remember why they were ducking when they walked onto the bima. They might still do it, unaware of why, or they might stop entirely, the ritual having lost its meaning.

The anthropologist Stanley Walens offers a stark perspective on ritual: “To perform a ritual the same way twice is to kill it.

”Surely, that’s something of a paradox. Isn’t a ritual something we do the same way, over and over again? If a ritual is something we do each day, week, or year, how can it also change? What’s more, rituals provide comfort and consistency, and community connection. Unless it’s Purim, we wouldn’t offer our Shabbat prayers in reverse order, starting with Kaddish and ending with L’cha Dodi - ritual provides order and meaning.

Here’s the full quotation from Walens: ”To perform a ritual the same way twice is to kill it, for the ritual grows as we grow, its life recapitulates the course of our [own].

”The ritual grows as we grow. Although not describing Jewish rituals, Walens is speaking about our concept of keva, the fixed elements of our worship and ritual, and our idea of kavannah, the intentionality, the spirituality, the innovation, and the creativity that we bring to our prayers and practices.

I saw it tonight when Deb lit our candles. Deb, and so many of you, have lit our candles so many times. The ritual, in and of itself, is essentially the same, week after week, year after year. The action is the same, the words, the blessing, all the same. But we are different each time. The act is static, the actor is dynamic. The ritual grows as we grow. How we show up, and what we bring to that moment in time, impacts the way we experience the ritual - hopefully in transformative ways, each and every time.

Tonight, we resume two rituals that many have longed for since March 2020 - blessing wine or grape juice and challah together here at Temple and sharing in these joyous tastes of Shabbat together. Tonight, in just a moment, here in the sanctuary, I will offer our Kiddush, blessing the fruit of the vine and sanctifying the day of Shabbat, and HaMotzi, blessing the challah, giving thanks for sustenance and life. To be a bit more COVID-conscious, we’ll offer the blessings up here, and then pre-poured cups (white for grape juice, red for wine) and pre-cut challah are downstairs for you. We’re asking everyone to keep their mask on unless you’re partaking in our food and drink.

These rituals are so meaningful to us, not just because they are cornerstones of Shabbat, but also because we have longed for them, as a sign of consistency, normalcy, and community. When we could not do these rituals here in Temple, many of us missed them. That should tell us something! These rituals are meaningful to us.

Thought-leader Priya Parker has spent much of the pandemic thinking about how and why we gather, how we come together in community, and how we could be doing it in deeper and even more meaningful ways. The pandemic gave us a lot to think about, because there were so many times we could not physically gather as we were used to, and there were things we could not do when we did begin to gather again.

Parker invites us to ask ourselves:

What did you long for when we couldn’t physically gather, or in the initial stages of returning?

What about our gatherings needs reinvention?

In a sense, Parker is encouraging us to think along the same lines as Walens. COVID put a hard stop on so many of our in-person gatherings and rituals, on being in the same room for services and meals, on sharing kiddush and hamotzi together. But that pause, that time of stopping, also gave us an opportunity, to think intentionally about how we are returning. Rather than doing and doing, week after week, making our rituals nothing more than routine, we stopped, and in that stopping, I hope we can return to some of that joy, spontaneity, and meaning when we truly bring kavananah, intentionality, to our rituals and gatherings.

The ritual grows as we grow. On the High Holy Days, we often say, Chadeish yameinu k’kedem - Renew our days, as of old. In a few moments, before we share in Kiddush and Hamotzi, we will share in another ritual, offering words of Shechecheyanu, the blessing we say when we return to something, again. When the ritual is the same, but we are new.

When we come to Kiddush and Hamotzi, I invite you to share in those blessings with kavannah, intention. To consider - how is this ritual familiar, comfortable, joyous? And what am I bringing to this ritual today? How have I changed since the last time we shared these blessings together at 26 Broad Street? How are each and every one of us remade, anew?

Shabbat shalom.

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784