Vayikra: Our Need For The Power of Rituals?

David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via, Creative Commons license.)
David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via, Creative Commons license.)

We begin the Book of Leviticus this Shabbat. The initial portion called “Vayikra”,is usually translated as “and He called”. This is a challenging book in many ways. Gone is the sweep of narrative. In its place, we find chapters of law and legalese. The “book of the priests” underscores the rites and rituals associated with the Temple/Mishkan and the role of the priesthood. The book begins with detailed instruction on various types of sacrifices that were to be brought to the altar, sacrifices brought for the worship of God. It is curious that we also read throughout other books that it is not the sacrifices that God wishes, but only for each of us to live our lives imbued by the power and meaning of “mitzvoth”.
This book raises important questions for we modern non-Orthodox Jews. Gone is the cult of sacrifices. The modern rabbi has little or no interest in the literal aspect of these laws. Yet, behind the surface of the texts rests another modern concern, a concern that is raised at about every conversation that deals with the modern Jewish world. What is the value of our rituals? If so many of us have so many different views of what God may be, then why do we insist on these rituals that point to our relationship with God?
Boomers have been in the forefront of the revolution that has seen an explosion in new and creative rituals, rituals that speak to new life stages. Indeed, one of the most requested workshops that we have at Jewish Sacred Aging is the one of “New Rituals for New Life Stages”. It is as if our generation is searching for ways to bring the power of ritual into our lives in new and meaningful ways. How many of you reading this have created some original ritual or re-interpreted a traditional one? We seem to need the moments in our lives that indicate transition and change to be embraced by some ritual that elevates the ordinary moment to something special. The “sh’hechyanu” blessing is usually said as part of these moments, for it is the blessing that gives thanks that we are alive to share in the moment.
As many scholars have noted, while creating new rituals may be meaningful, there is also something comforting in participating in timeless rituals as well. In just a few days we will gather at the Seder for Passover and participate in an ancient ritual, yet one that continues to evolve. Maybe that is one of the unseen messages of “Vayikra”, that our rituals help provide a sense of connection to what was while allowing us to reinterpret then for the what is. In that sense, this is symbolic of our own aging. We reflect on where we have come from, yet, we hope to have the strength of soul and courage to be open to the now and to the future and to hold on to what gives use meaning while not fearing change. Life, as our rituals, must remain dynamic.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

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