Your Rosh Hashanah ritual riddle: how are sweet fruit crumble and the liturgy of Unetaneh Tokef alike?
Lawrence Hoffman says that rituals structure time. Without rituals, life would be a series of moments. Mostly flat, but with some confusing fluctuations. Some ups, some downs, and no road map through them.
Ritual gives us a script to follow. Things we say or don’t say; actions we take in a predictable order; emotional cues telling us to cheer or cry or sing. Together, we create a moment, build to its high point, feel its significance. Family dinner is a ritual; so are a hockey game, a board meeting, a religious service.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a collection of scripts. A holiday filled with mini-rituals. Each participant cherishes their own favourite practice. Some prepare for the New Year by baking honey cake; for them the high point is sharing food at family feast. Others rush to synagogue to hear the shofar, finding their high point in the mysterious sounds of childhood memories. And some conduct a private review of their year, finding meaning in resolutions and apologies.
I love the annual life review. I feel into it as a writer might. In front of me is The Book of Last Year. As I proofread it, I flag mistakes, conduct research, re-order ideas, and re-word sloppy expressions. The high point? A re-written draft, re-named Next Year: A Spiritual, Moral, and Existential Plan.
It’s not an original metaphor. In fact, it’s straight out of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The piyyut (liturgical poem) Unetaneh Tokef says: God sits upon the throne of Love and Truth. There, God opens the book of Chronicles. God reads the record of every living thing. And, based on what’s written, God plans each creature’s next year.
Gosh, I love this piyyut. It’s more than liturgy; it’s a ritual in itself. A predictable performance with strong emotional cues. A script we follow together. An operatic story, told dramatically. God is at work, terrifying the angels, shepherding the earthlings, holding everyone in a balance of love and truth. A story with parts for everyone to sing. On Rosh Hashanah, it is written! On Yom Kippur, it is sealed! La la la la la! How many will die? How many will be born? Who will drown? Who will starve? Who will become rich? Who will be at peace? On Rosh Hashanah, it is written! On Yom Kippur, it is sealed! La la la la la!
Can you believe I participate in this Rosh Hashanah ritual with a straight face? Sing lustily about the world’s misfortune? Imagine God with hips and hands and a broad lap? With giant eyes reading an impossibly big book? Surrounded by angels who panic on cue?
The ritual makes sense to me. The myth behind it doesn’t.
Catherine Bell wonders about that. What’s most important in religious practice, she asks. Doing the ritual, believing the myth it expresses, or losing yourself in both? Do I love Unetaneh Tokef because it creates a community? A group that feels together life’s ups and downs? Do I love this piyyut because it tells a story? A story whose contours match my own new year’s musings? Or do I love this Rosh Hashanah ritual script because once I’m immersed in it, silly academic dichotomies disappear? Singing, making new year’s resolutions, picturing a great book of deeds — all are part of a single sense of purpose.
A delightful fusion of behaviour and belief — that describes my holiday baking, too. My kitchen behaviours are simple: I make a fruit crumble. This year, I used store-bought apples. Last year, pears from our backyard tree. Two years ago, I tossed in blackberries from the corner bramble. Three years ago, apples left over from a synagogue party.
But my beliefs are profound. I celebrate the season’s harvest, whatever fruits the weather brought. Make magic with whatever the community offers. And share the yield with a close circle of family.
How are sweet fruit crumble and Unetaneh Tokef alike? May you discover a higher purpose in each Rosh Hashanah ritual!
Written while reflecting on the content of the course I’m teaching at Vancouver School of Theology, “Liturgy, Ritual, and the Sacred,” fall 2017.