How ritual redeems us

In Judaism, as in many religions, a ritual cycle correlates certain parts of the year with mythical events, making the year an endless repetition of the mythical age.

Women bake matzot in Jerusalem ahead of Passover. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Women bake matzot in Jerusalem ahead of Passover.
For lovers of ritualized meaning-making, Passover is the greatest of all the holidays. Through the performance of these, we can attain all the possibilities of what ritual can mean for an individual and a community.
The sheer volume, complexity and intensity of rituals in preparation for and in observance of Passover is unmatched by any other Jewish holiday.
Indeed, Passover’s rituals are so intense that for some, they make us feel oppressed and/or obsessed; for others, they help us find redemption.
That sense of redemption, however, is possible primarily for those who are willing to embrace (at least some of) the rituals and are open to how they can be transformative. This is because beyond the ritual performance itself, the fulfillment one can experience through the complex preparations, cleaning, recitations, enactments and internalization of meaning by consuming symbolic foods in particular ways is unmatched.
If we consider all of the holiday’s key elements, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by its potential power. Passover combines the primeval fulfillments of spring cleaning with the power of repeated communal retelling of epic historical narratives and the playing out of multigenerational family dynamics, along with hyper-vigilance about cooking and eating symbolic foods. Layered together, it’s bound to produce a charged environment ripe for meaning-making.
But for what meaning, and for what purpose? The ancient sages, who added layers to the original early Passover celebrations, believed that the rituals themselves were so intense and profound they could enable each of us to feel ourselves as though we were personally part of the exodus from Egypt.
Passover returns us to an ancient time and place, and drops us into the climax of the most powerful human drama of redemption.
That is the power of ritual, according to one of the giants of ritual studies, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). His most enduring and influential contribution to religious studies is likely his Theory of Eternal Return, which holds that myths and rituals do not simply commemorate hierophanies (appearances of the sacred), but – at least to the minds of the religious – rituals actually enable us to participate again in those experiences. For a traditional religious person – and maybe for the rest of us less traditional folks, too – a ritual-filled life constantly unites us with sacred time, giving our existence value.
In Judaism, as in many religions, a ritual cycle correlates certain parts of the year with mythical events, making the year an endless repetition of the mythical age.
But Passover is even more than that because it also creates a second “Renewal of the Cosmos,” through rituals associated with the new year of the first month of Nisan; these Passover ceremonies of renewal serve to simultaneously reestablish a mythic world of the past and at the same time, confirm our yearning for a time of redemption in the future. Beginning with our struggles of slavery in Egypt, we end with redemption, joy and a plan to be in a rebuilt, ideal Jerusalem by next year: L’Shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem! In the middle of the Seder, the mysterious prophet Elijah appears – as he does at a circumcision ceremony or at the end of Shabbat – calming our uncertainty and ensuring us that a clear and positive future is in sight. And by the end of the night, we have ritualized our way into redemption, not only of the past but of the future.
If Passover can return us to a mythic age, then perhaps it can also transform us into seeing ourselves as more than we believed we were beforehand. The ritual experience is one that can alter the individual in such a way that they want to alter the society in which they live. In fact, another great scholar of ritual, Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), reminds us that “in ritual, the world as lived, and the world as imagined… turn out to be the same world.”
But whether or not one covers the kitchen in aluminum foil and changes all the dishes, the conscious celebration of the Seder itself is the most significant factor in the power of Passover for the individual and for the community. As we sing and drink and break the matza, it’s the story that defines who we are – because we are confirming and expressing faith in a profound human language; a language of ritual which is personally enacted and communally affirmed.
And if we are in need of or in search of greater faith, the Passover rituals can help to renew faith because they give us the place, space, time and opportunity to act in ways that often serve to strengthen our connection to community, to history, to our ancestors and descendants, and to the future.
Perhaps if we engage in several aspects of the ritual preparations and recitations, the rituals will confirm our most important relationships – our commitment to our covenant with God, with the Land of Israel, with our people, and with the specific people with whom we celebrate.
And perhaps if we celebrate Passover in ways that are relevant and meaningful to the different ages of the people around the table, it can affirm who we are and who we want to be. Maybe we are not only those who remember being slaves ourselves and celebrate redemption for thousands of years; maybe the meaning of the rituals is also to remind us that we must also be those who care for the people who are suffering now, and work for the redemption of all peoples. Otherwise, what have we become? Thus the ritual reminds of what world we want to live in, and helps us to create it for a moment in the ritual act and implant it anew in our souls – so that we continue to desire it and strive to create it. More than prayer or study, ritual allows us to begin to become that which we believe we should be.
We need ritual not only because we need ways of marking time. And we need the rituals of Passover because we need to celebrate not just ourselves and our place in the larger narrative about our people and our sacred places, but we need to remind ourselves to enact our redemptive visions for the future of the world in which we live.
The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions and a President’s Scholar.