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Angela W. Buchdahl
On Rituals (Parashat Tzav)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  March 22, 2013

The ritual mystified and intrigued us in recent days—a drama of religious election, with elaborate sacral vestments, headdresses, and of course, the ritual smoke.

No, I’m not talking about the selection of the newest Pope, Francis; I’m talking about this week’s Torah portion, Tzav. This week in the Jewish world, we’ve been reading a detailing of the ritual for ordaining the priests. It was a very precise and formal ritual: the priests were first bathed by Moses, who then dressed them in special tunics, anointed them with sacrificial blood on their right ear, thumb and big toe, then bedecked them with a breastpiece and a golden headpiece. And then Moses would turn an entire ram into smoke on the altar. The symbolism was clear—these men, first laid naked, were ritually dressed in sacred garb, were doused in sacrificial blood and this anointed them into a life of sacrifice to God. An animal was burnt on the altar and the smoke rose up to God, smoke being the best way we knew to send a message up to the heavens.

Clearly there are many similarities between the ordination of the priests and that of a new pope; ours came first, of course. There is a reason that religious ritual exists and the way it functions to solidify the values of a community, and solidify the identity of its adherents.

Victor Turner, who was my father-in-law’s PhD advisor, was a specialist in ritual theory. He talked about ritual that helped mark major transitions in life. Perhaps you are changing from status A to status B, from a regular person to a priest—or even a pope, from a boy to a man, from a girl to a wife. Between one status to another was a liminal space, an in-between status, and the ritual provided a structure for the transformation. In ritual, to go from status A to status B, there has to be something crazy, mysterious, chaotic, secretive, to break the ordinary, then you return to the normal but you return transformed. Something happens to change our status. This could happen on a community or individual level.

It’s true that you can go from being a boy to a man without ritual, you can feel connected to someone without a marriage ritual, but there is something very powerful about a ritual, with a clear beginning and end, with specific rites, that brings comfort and helps move us from one place to another.

I think the power of ritual is on my mind this week in particular. Last weekend, I traveled to Portland, Or., for a gathering in honor of my Aunt Elsa Warnick. She was an artist, a hippie, a non-comforist, and my most creative and beautiful aunt. I visited her last summer when she was very alert but already knew she was dying. I asked if there was anything I could do for her. She said, very respectfully, “No thank you. When I die, I want to be cremated, and I don’t want any silly speeches or fuss made.” So we all respected her wishes, and ten days after her death we gathered in her apartment for an open-house memorial to pay respects. I hugged my cousins, looked at the many illustrations she had painted around her home, and of course, we ate. But there was no moment in which we gathered in any formal memorial. No moment to hear stories and share them together. No moment of a cathartic cry. No ritual to focus our mourning. I realized how much I missed the ritual. How much the ritual was not just for my aunt, but for those of us left behind.

This week, we will all go through the ritual of the Passover seder. That ritual is to transform us from ordinary people into slaves: we are to taste our tears, to internalize the bitterness of our sweat and work, and then from status A to status B, the ritual transforms us from slaves to free people, and we experience redemption. It is good ritual, that breaks us from ordinary time, that is somewhat mystifying and nutty, but like all good ritual, it reinforces our communal values of caring for the poor and the enslaved, because we have experienced what it is to be poor and enslaved. It reinforces the bonds of family, and community, and it’s also just good fun.

This is not an advertisement for religion, but where would we be without ritual in our lives? We would be lacking in some of the most powerful, time-tested tools for proclaiming our identity, in major transitional moments in our lives, it helps to transform us, and it reminds us of our highest selves.

Chag Sameach.

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