Ritual helps us remember our story—at Passover and during a pandemic.
You might think some stories stand on their own. Like the story of the Exodus.
But no, says the Torah, the Exodus story needs a ritual, too.
Why? Precisely because it’s so dramatic, so emotional. In real life, sights, sounds, and tastes carry feelings. Just a hint of a scent can trigger a powerful memory. So can a glimpse of a landscape. (That’s why we ask each other, “Where were you when…?”)
Sometimes you can tell your story to people who know its landscape. Then, they can feel into the story. And the power of their feeling helps keep the story alive in you, too.
But, Torah asks, what happens when you move to a new land? How will you feel into the story there?
You will have to craft a new sensory landscape for the story. One with tastes and smells that will carry the memory for you. Unusual bread. Specially roasted meat. A late night vigil that changes your consciousness.
Future generations will know those tastes and smells. Under this aura, you will tell them the story of the Exodus. And then they’ll know it in their bodies, too. Maybe they’ll ride the emotional waves of the story.
Ritual—says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman—gives an emotional structure to life. A ritual is a familiar script, taking us step-by-step to an emotional high point. But it’s not a static high point. Because each time we perform the ritual, we create a new memory. And then the ritual becomes even more emotionally loaded.
A ritual can be religious, like a Passover Seder that slowly leads us to an emotional peak. We tell the story, feel relief when the slaves cross the sea, then make a toast, and celebrate with a shared meal.
A ritual meal can be mundane, too, like an annual lunch with dear friends. One by one, our friends trickle in and greet one another. Then, we pour drinks, name our celebrations and our needs, and make a toast to them all. Then, we relax into chatter, as we share our meal.
Before the pandemic, my life was full of familiar ritual. A routine of places and people and shared meals. So, each day had a familiar emotional shape. So did each week, leading up to the high of Shabbos. And so did each year, with high points at Passover and the High Holidays.
But I don’t have those rituals in my life right now. So, I’m not in my familiar emotional landscape. Without the familiar sounds, sights, tastes, and smells, I can’t feel my way into my own story. And I worry that I have lost the thread of who I am.
How do I build a new landscape that carries my story?
Read about locusts in Parshat Bo here. Photo credit: Charles Kaplan. Originally prepared for Or Shalom Synagogue.