Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Elul Reflections 10: Immersing ourselves in Ritual

Last week I took a group of 5 women to our local mikvah for a pre-High Holyday preparation ritual.  We ranged in age from about 40 to mid-80s; some had experienced the ritual of mikvah before and some had never been.  It was a meaningful and powerful ritual for us all - reading prayers that helped to set our intentions and then, guided by a beautiful mikvah ritual created for Mayyim Hayyim - the community mikvah and educational center in Boston, we took it in turns to immerse while the rest of the group provided witness by gently chanting in the background, Peleg Elohim, Mayim, Mayim, Mayim Chayyim (Streams of God, full of water.  Waters of Life)[music by Rabbi Shefa Gold; words from Ps. 65:10].
This coming week we will have the opportunity to engage in another water-based High Holyday ritual - tashlich; casting bread into running waters in a nearby brook or river to symbolically indicate our intention and desire to cast away the sins of the past year - the ways we failed to recognize our highest path and our highest self, whether by intention as we were driven by other motives, or by omission through lack of presence to a moment or to a person who needed more from us.

Rosh Hashanah is filled with opportunities for ritual moments drawn from the tradition - the dipping of apple into honey, hearing the shofar, deciding what to wear, making a special meal to be shared.  Deciding what to wear?  For some, my including a ritual such as this on the list brings to mind negative associations with past experiences in synagogues where community members seemed more focused on what each other was wearing, or obsessing about 'getting something new' than they did on why we were all there in the first place.  But I've come to understand that ritual, when done mindfully and with intention, can be a powerful and meaningful thing.  It can also be empty and superficial if one is simply going through the motions.  Each year, I make a conscious decision about which suit I will wear on Rosh Hashanah - I feel no obligation to go out and get something 'new', but there might be something about the color, or something about my associations with the suit - when I got it, who got it, a previous occasion when I wore it that I now to bring to mind and I wish to connect with walking into the synagogue on Erev Rosh Hashanah, bringing with me a set of intentions or associations.

Rituals often attract rituals.  At B'nai Israel it is the custom for members of our Youth Group - BIFTY - to compile and lead our tashlich ritual on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  It is meaningful for our community to be led in this way by our youth.  There is nothing innate about this having been given to them that is connected to the ritual of tashlich, but it has become important to us, and I look forward each year to receiving the new design and any additions from our new Religious and Cultural VPs - my 'new' taste, each year, of who they are and how they respond to the first ritual task requested of them.  I also believe that our community engages with the ritual itself with greater attention and intention when our teens lead the way - there is a mutual inspiration that we feel.
Dipping apple in honey symbolizes our hopes for a sweet new year.  That is about the future.  But for me, dipping apple in honey is so much more about the past because my associations with this ritual - what really makes it powerful for me - are years of memories of dipping apple in honey with my family, and those ritual moments we created together in the home - the first thing we would do when we got back from synagogue.  It made Rosh Hashanah an 'in here' experience for us and not just an 'out there' experience; just through the simple act of standing together as a household for 10 mins to say the blessings over wine, challah and apple and honey.  This year, the chanting/meditation group that I co-lead, Chantsformations, is gathering on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and our theme is 'savoring the sweetness' - intentionally bringing to awareness not just the connections with the past or the hopes for the future, but recognizing that the ritual of dipping apple into honey can also be a meditation on the present - to truly savor the sweetness of just being here now.

In so many ways, our rituals can take on meaning far beyond the simple, symbolic associations that we often hear as the 'official' reasons why they exist.  I am sure that you have rituals for this season, or associations and stories that accompany specific rituals that are most meaningful to you that often come to mind at the moment that you engage in the activity.  Please click on the comments link and share them with us here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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