In our modern lives, the Torahs rituals are more crucial than ever

Achrei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Malachi 3:4-3:24

We are blessed in Judaism to have many rituals — both momentous ones such as the blowing of the shofar on the High Holy Days, and simpler ones such as the lighting of Shabbat candles. These rituals give order to our year and add meaning to our lives.

Midway through this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot, we begin a section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code. These 10 chapters, beginning in Leviticus 17, lay out ethical and ritual commandments that are designed to create holy communities. Many of these mitzvahs focus on how to treat others, forbidden sexual relationships, and staying true to our one God. The values that are represented in the Holiness Code are still integral to modern Judaism.

For instance, the teaching that we should leave the edges of our fields unharvested and leave the gleanings so that the needy may collect what has been left behind without having to ask for charity is one of the ways our biblical tradition envisions creating a just society. So too is the instruction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” We are to provide dignity and care for all.

It is easy to see how many of the teachings contained in the Holiness Code have been incorporated into modern Judaism. However, we also learn in this parshah about rituals that seem archaic to us today. For instance, the rituals surrounding the sin offerings that Aaron is instructed to bring to the inner sanctuary on behalf of himself, his household, and all the people of Israel. While the notion of a sin offering is foreign to us today, we would be wise not to cast aside the idea of rituals as a whole.

A ritual, as defined by scholars, is a special act that links people through shared meaning. It can last a moment or can be repeated throughout a lifetime. The importance of ritual has recently emerged through the work of rabbis, ministers, psychologists, and anthropologists, whose findings are helping to re-establish its central cultural and religious role in our lives.

One anthropologist writes, “Rituals most intimately affect families, giving them a common focus, bringing them together in a way everyday activities do not. Demanding jobs and busy schedules have eroded traditions as basic as the family dinner.”

Despite the many things that compete for our time and attention, she notes that “there are still daily moments that lend themselves naturally to domestic ritual: exits and entrances, bathing and bedtime.”

The same author describes the special ritual she developed with her children as they leave the house. Placing her hand upon their heads she says: “I’m sending you out to the world, come back safe.” This personal ritual, derived from the priestly benediction in the Torah, became so ingrained in the writer’s family life that her children would return for it if she forgot to recite their special blessing.

One ritual that can add meaning to our lives is communal prayer. Virtually every prayer and ceremony in Judaism uses language in the plural because our commitment to the autonomy of every human being is balanced by the belief that the individual Jew is always part of a larger community. As Rabbi Eugene Borowitz writes, “Group prayer, by confronting us with others, reminds us that it is never enough to pray for ourselves alone.” 

Another ritual opportunity, arriving weekly, is Shabbat. When we take a moment to light candles and sing blessings over the wine and bread, we honor our traditions and make them our own. When we bless our children and show appreciation for our partners, we connect with the significant people in our lives and pause to feel the emotions that make us fully human.

The Holiness Code reminds us of what it means to be a holy people. In our communities, our members will choose different ways to pursue fulfilling the mitzvahs of our tradition, but we all share the obligation to continue to be a holy people and to find ways to create sparks of holiness.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].