Every child needs a strong moral compass (A Schechter pillar) to navigate a society that often seems to lack compassion, consideration, or basic manners. To instill this moral compass, we need to foster specific Jewish values and ethical living. Our society is desperate for it; and it is our obligation as Jews to lead the way – and one of the primary goals of a Jewish education at Schechter. To help children (and to help us) develop a healthy moral and ethical fabric, we need rituals in our lives. I know that we do not often connect moral values to rituals, so keep reading.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Saul Berman, a Rabbinic and legal scholar, speak about the inseparable link between ritual and the ethical. His presentation helped me recognize the absolute necessity for Jews to engage in ritual and ethical Mitzvot [commandments] as a means of becoming closer to God, Judaism, the Jewish people, and as a means of actualizing our potential as human beings. His teaching has never left me.
Ritual Mitzvot represent a distinctive language for Jews. Rituals take the form of speech, action, and inaction as a means of communicating values, most of which have ethical meanings. For example, rituals as a form of speech are evident through the recitation of Brakhot. Rituals as communication through action are evident when one puts on a Talit. We, as Jews should, at the very least, commit to learn and understand the language of the various forms of ritual communication and its content. This is the challenge for the modern Jew and for us at Schechter as we try to foster an attachment to ritual Mitzvot. Such an exploration for those who observe may serve to reaffirm this commitment, and for those not there yet, discovering this connection may lead to a journey of increased engagement.
We can learn much from the Mitzvot that communicate values through inaction. Jewish rituals powerfully use the act of omission. There is enormous importance and ethical meaning to the things that we do not do.
In the Torah one can find prohibitions that are both permanent and temporary. Permanent prohibitions are things that are wrongful between God and human beings and between human beings. Temporary prohibitions tend to focus on essential human activities such as eating, working, and sexuality. Rabbi Berman suggests that the purpose of temporarily withdrawing from an activity is not to put it out of our minds, but rather, to draw attention to it.
During this time of year, Yom Kippur is very much on our minds as the holidays approach. Yom Kippur is a day during which we are temporarily prohibited from eating food. Many of us have learned that the reason for fasting is so that we will concentrate on prayer. The physical should not matter. On the contrary, it would be easier to focus on prayer if we were not hungry, thirsty, or feeling grungy because we have not showered or brushed our teeth. Rabbi Berman says that when we are commanded to withdraw from any of these essential activities, the reason is to evaluate them; our conduct and our relationship to these activities. On Yom Kippur, as we are praying and fasting, it is appropriate to think about who we ate with this year, and who we didn’t; to reflect on what we ate, and while we ate, asking ourselves if we did anything to help others who lack food? This is how the ritual connects us to the ethical.
On Shabbat, when we abstain from work, our inaction has significant meaning. It can be a declaration of our understanding that ultimately God is the source of all productivity in this world, not humans.We are God’s partner in producing and creating. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we state, “We are not what we produce. We are infinitely more than that!” Abstention provides us with time to evaluate our productivity. Is it ethical, proper, and does it benefit others? Do we express gratitude for that which was created for us?
Inaction also acknowledges our limits. We are not all-powerful. We should not define ourselves by the power we possess or lose sight of how to channel that power. The force of rituals of inaction reminds us not to define ourselves by what we consume and create. We are not the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, or the boat we own. Yet, contemporary American society tends to teach the opposite. In our secular culture, people are often defined by what they produce, consume, and the power they wield. This obliterates our Jewish values and ethics that promote the dignity of every human being and the connection to God and all that is holy.
Brakhot, verbal communication, is a means to acknowledge and thank God for the blessing of life and all that we receive. It infuses each of us with a sense of appreciation and concern for others. Do other people have what I have? How can I help? Research in positive psychology affirms that gratitude and appreciation enhance the quality of life. Fortunately, we have had a system in place for thousands of years that provides the framework for Hakarat Hatov – gratitude.
These examples state the obvious for those of us concerned with the dignity of people, our relationship to God, and the inculcation of values and ethics in our culture; the language of ritual is essential in our lives. It speaks the same language of the ethical, blending them together. The ritual brings out the ethical imperative. Through ritual enactments emerges the ethical to shape our human behavior – if we take the time to make those real connections.
During the Yamim Noraim [“Days of Awe”] and then Sukkot, let’s make an effort to rediscover the power of rituals. When we say Brakhot, we are reminded to be appreciative and to say kind words. When we pray, we remember the power of words and how appropriate words can build a world, while inappropriate words can be destructive. Let the power of omission remind us that sometimes it is better to say nothing than to say something hurtful.
The road to understanding the language of rituals and the fostering of ethical living is through Jewish education and Jewish living. Support your child’s Jewish education at Schechter by helping to reinforce a positive understanding of Mitzvot through doing and learning. We are a powerful partner when we increase our commitment to Jewish learning and observance. Children learn best from watching what we do. Let them see us going to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. Let them see us engage in Jewish study. Let them see us give Tzedakah or volunteer in the community. If you have never built a Sukkah, let this be the year that you do. The journey begins with the first step. Through these commitments we will all come to better learn the language of rituals as a means of embracing ethical teachings, coming closer to God, and we will certainly grow as Jews, people, and families.