You Shall Pursue

March 16, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Tsav

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:11 am

Starting my freshman year of college, I wanted to learn to lay tefillin. It seemed like an important next step in my journey toward becoming a more religious Jew. I looked for someone to teach me, but couldn’t find the right teacher, until last year, my first year of rabbinical school. One of my professors brought me a learner’s set of tefillin, and taught me the intricate process of wrapping it down my left arm, and around my hand in the shape of a shin, and the proper blessings and kavanot, or ritual intentions. I was thrilled, and nervous. And then the tefillin were on for the first time, and I realized that I was the only person in my secular Jewish family who had wrapped tefillin in decades, who even knew how to wrap tefillin, and I sobbed like a baby.

This week’s portion, tzav, begins the long process of installing Aaron and his sons as priests. They are washed, and anointed, and dressed in special clothes. They perform sacrifices, and are purified. And Moses tells them that this is the beginning of an ordination that will take seven days.

This portion emphasizes the importance of rituals in marking life changes. Before this ritual begins, Aaron is Moses’ brother, a leader among the people. At the end of the ritual, he will be unique among the people, the first High Priest, responsible for mediating between the people and God. The stakes are high; the consequence of failure is death and God’s withdraw from the people. And so God creates for him a ritual, one that will both render him ritually pure but also, I would argue, to transform him into the role that he has been chosen to inhabit. God understands the mental weight of what he has given to Aaron, and he gives him an opportunity to experience a change into a priest.

I often like to joke that coming of age rituals are all about surviving inflicted trauma. Whether the trauma is being sent into the desert to have a vision quest, or standing on a bima in front of all of our friends and relatives to lead a service in a foreign language, these occasions are usually accompanied by feelings of excitement and dread (I, for example, seriously considered running away from home the week before my Bat Mitzvah, and see how well that turned out). But the moments they mark are even more auspicious. Changing over from a child to a teenager and eventually an adult, becoming an independent moral actor, this is a scary thing. And the public and emotionally invested nature of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah really emphasizes the nature of the change. It is a big deal. And I can remember every detail of that outfit.

There are many such examples in our society of these sorts of rituals. Rituals designed to mark time, to mark status changes, to move us from one part of our lives to another. In the words of the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his book A General Theory of Magic, “Ritual acts… are essentially thought to be able to produce more than a contract: rites are eminently effective, they are creative, they do things.”

And often those rituals, those changes in our status, are accompanied by a change in appearance. Whether it is the first time in a tallit, a first business suit at a first interview, or our first pair of reading glasses, clothes have weight.

But so often there are little moments, like the first interview, like the transition into middle and old age, that are tremendously weighty, but that we don’t necessarily mark with ritual. But the beauty of Judaism is that anything can be recognized with a blessing, with a ritual, with an opportunity to reach out and connect. And as rabbis, it is part of our job to create these rituals. My classmates and I have written rituals for moving into a first apartment, for leaving a long-time family home, for entering menopause and for surviving trauma. As a people, it is our privilege that we have the opportunity to live our every minute recognized, celebrated, and commemorated.

But this is not just our job. Moses, brilliant prophet though he was, was not a member of the Temple cult when he ordained his brother. He was a lay person who helped move Aaron from being a leader of Israel to being a High Priest, he arranged the ceremony that would help ease that transition.

And each of us, though not rabbis, have the ability to mark the moments of our lives and make them sacred. Whether that is a weekly Shabbat dinner, or the gift of a mezuzah to children going off to college, or saying the traveler’s prayer before going on vacation, there are a thousand little things that we can do to mark the momentous moments of our lives. Because doing so changes these moments from momentous to holy, in the service of God.

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