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Parshas Vayikra (5773)

Ritual Reality

[Sung to the tune of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music]

Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes
Out with the Chametz, no pasta, no knishes
Fish that's gefillted, horseradish that stings
These are a few of our Passover things.

Matzah and Karpas and chopped up Charoses
Shankbones and Kiddush and Yiddish neuroses
Tante who "kvetches" and Uncle who sings
These are a few of our Passover things.

When the hail hits
When the frogs croak
When we're feeling sad
We simply remember our Passover things
And then we don't feel so bad.

Motzi and Maror and trouble with Pharoahs
Famines and locusts and slaves with wheelbarrows
Matzah balls floating and eggshell that clings
These are a few of our Passover things.

Four cups of wine and one cup for Elijah
Potatoes and Kichel, all mixed up inside 'ya
The family together - oh, what joy it brings
These are a few of our Passover things.

When the plagues strike
When the lice bite
When we're feeling sad
We simply remember our Passover things
And then we don't feel so bad.
[Author unknown]


As the above song relates, we Jews have so many "Passover things" - there are so many different (and yummy) foods that we eat only on Passover, and so many special traditions and rituals that each Jewish family observes at the Seder on Passover night.

It is indeed ironic that Passover is one of the most popular of all the Jewish holidays, and is celebrated by practically all Jews, despite the fact that it is also the holiday with the most "rituals" and "traditions" attached to it. And this at a time when it has become popular for many to say, "Performing a bunch of rituals doesn't make you a better Jew; it's what's inside that counts". So if rituals are so "out", why is Passover still "all the rage" among Jews of every stripe and affiliation?

Now, to be sure, some of those "rituals" are actually Biblical commandments given by G-d to the Jewish people, such as eating Matzah and reciting the Haggadah to our children. But the majority of the rituals that we do on Passover night at the Seder are just customs and traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation. So what makes them so popular to so many Jews?

This question is especially relevant in our own times when we have witnessed the Reform Movement, which for over 100 years had taken a turn away from "ritual" Judaism, accepting a new platform in which more rituals are being advocated for its members. What is it about Jewish traditions and rituals that seems to inexplicably draw so many Jews to the Passover Seder each year, and that is now being embraced by many who had initially discounted its value?

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, in his wonderful book Generation to Generation, tells a story which may give us an answer:

A very simple Jew, just barely literate, came into a bookstore asking to buy a Siddur (prayer book). The proprietor, assessing this customer's limited capacity, showed him the simplest Siddur, but the man asked for something more elaborate. He continued asking for a more sophisticated Siddur until the proprietor showed him the massive Otzar Hatefillos, a Siddur with hundreds of pages of scholarly commentaries on the prayers. The customer was overjoyed. This was exactly what he wanted. The proprietor could not contain himself. "Why on earth would you want the Otzar Hatefillos?” he asked, "Are you really able to understand this?" The customer shrugged, "Not at all", he said, "but you see, I have small children at home. When they get hold of the Siddur and pretend to pray, they handle it so roughly that the first few pages are torn out. Now the Adon Olam (Master of the Universe) prayer is on the first page, and so they tear out the Adon Olam. With the Otzar Hatefillos, there are so many pages of commentaries that even if they tear out many pages, they have a long way to go before they even get to the Adon Olam."

Rabbi Twerski continues: “The many customs and practices that were added to the Torah throughout the generations, are there to assure that we keep the Adon Olam intact. (The term Adon Olam was cleverly exploited in this story. Adon Olam is, of course, the first prayer of the morning service, usually found on the first page of the Siddur. Literally, however, Adon Olam means "Master of the Universe", and "tearing out the Adon Olam" means extirpating one's belief in G-d as ruler of the universe, that is, a rejection of faith in G-d.)

“There are many challenges to faith. Things constantly occur which lead people to question G-d's dominion and providence: "If there is a G-d, why does He allow these things to happen?" If unfortunate happenings affect us more directly, and we experience suffering and distress, this question ceases to be a philosophical exercise, and becomes a very angry challenge. At such times we need a great deal of reinforcement to maintain our faith. It is also evident that the quality of faith has become attenuated with the progress of time. Each new generation is further removed from the Revelation at Sinai. It follows that with every ensuing generation we can anticipate an erosion of faith and the observances related to faith.

“How much our children will retain may well depend on what existed before the process of erosion set in. If the lives of the parents are abundant in custom and traditions, the inevitable erosion may affect these, but not jeopardize the core of faith and commitment. Even if pages are torn away, they are the introductory pages; the Adon Olam remains intact. If, however, the parents have only the essential nucleus of faith, then the erosion process strikes this immediately. The very first deviation eliminates the Adon Olam.

“Maybe this is the deep, almost subconscious, reason why Passover, with all its many traditions and rituals, holds such a dear place in so many Jews' hearts. It is just those traditions - the many seemingly inexplicable customs and laws handed down from one generation of Jews to the next - that provide a bulwark against the erosion of our faith. There is a sense that whatever has remained of Torah observance and the Jewish religion as a whole - is attributable to the strength of tradition, and on the insistence that even apparent trivia be considered sacrosanct.” (end of quote)

So, this year, when you're sitting at the Seder table less than two weeks from now, dipping your pinky into the wine glass, listening to your Zeidy (grandfather) mumbling something in Hebrew about the Egyptians, watching your kids try to find the Afikomen that you've hidden over the fireplace, and chomping on Matzah and Maror sandwiches - just remember that the reason why we're even at the Seder table and have remained strong in our Jewish beliefs up until now is because our ancestors have been doing these very rituals for the past three thousand years!

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