The Power of Ritual / Spring Yizkor Service

This week’s parsha, Tzav, presents the various sacrifices detailed to the Israelites last week in Vayikra, but this time the focus of the presentation is the priests. It reads like a how-to ritual manual: What priests must wear, how to prepare each type of offering (down to the smallest detail), and the specifics of priestly consecration and ordination. 

Why are the specifics of these priestly rituals outlined in such stark detail? Why are the minutiae of each priestly ritual so important? I’ll tell you why. The details are important because following a specific routine produces stability. Ceremony brings comfort. Ritual yields healing.

During its early years, liberal Judaism viewed these and many other Jewish rituals negatively. Emphasis was placed on the importance of rational thinking, and on belief that was based in analysis. Many Jewish practices were rejected as being too ancient, too foreign for modern thinkers.

More recently, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of ritual and tradition. Ritual is still not mandated in liberal Judaism, but is welcome as a viable and appealing choice. A visible example of this is the wearing of kippot (yarmulkes) and tallitot (prayer shawls), which for decades was rare in liberal synagogues. The wearing of kippot and tallitot is still mandated for no one, but now is embraced, encouraged, and occurs widely among liberal Jews.

Liberal Judaism overshot the mark when it rejected traditional Jewish practices and rituals out of hand, throwing away the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I am a solidly logical thinker, and fully embrace a rational, analytical approach to almost everything; however, I also have a firm appreciation for the power of ritual.

Several times in our lives, each of us will find ourselves mourning the death of a loved one. Amidst the pain and confusion, even secular Jews often find ourselves searching for a ritually knowledgeable spiritual leader to help guide us through our loss. 

Many of us find ourselves, in fact, yearning to perform these rituals: Tearing one’s garments or wearing a black ribbon for keriah; sitting shiva, with its inherent community care customs; reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. These rituals all provide solace, even to those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’. They provide order to our disrupted lives, and help us cope with our loss. I always consider it an honor when I am asked to officiate a funeral, and I am always humbled to guide a family through such rituals.

Liberal Judaism once neglected the fact that human spirituality is complex, and that ritual speaks to the visceral aspect of our experience as human beings. Traditional Jewish ritual around grief and mourning is tremendously wise and helpful. When I work with a family in mourning, I find it beneficial to explain each aspect of traditional mourning rituals in detail, so the modern mourners whom I serve might engage in mourning rituals they had not originally considered, but which may ultimately be a comfort.  

Modern Jews owe a great debt to the founders of liberal Judaism. They pioneered the concept of blending intellectual integrity and religion. This has allowed us to forge a modern system of religion with a focus on ethics, while also embracing many of the rituals and traditions that were originally rejected by these innovators. 

Liberal Judaism is thus able to continue to develop and respond to changing modern sensibilities, while also addressing our primitive, visceral side. The original emphasis on reason and intellect, and later return to ritual and tradition while still embracing logical thought, is what allows us to each make our own diverse ritual choices today.

The detailed practices outlined in Tzav may seem excessive at first glance. But see them and other ancient rituals as a blueprint; see them as a rich starting point for contemporary application. Embrace ritual, and you may find yourself healed.


And speaking of rituals, let us remember our loved ones….

There are 4 times over the course of the Jewish calendar year when a yizkor (memorial) service is traditionally held: Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret in the fall, and Passover and Shavuot in the spring.

In order to give you a springtime opportunity to remember your loved ones, Ahava will livestream a ‘Shabbat Live or Later with Yizkor’ service on April 2, 2021, the Shabbat during Passover.

If your loved ones’ names were read aloud during Yizkor on Yom Kippur last fall, they will automatically be read aloud again for our spring Yizkor service. If you would like to add loved ones to the list for 4/2/21, please send their name/s to no later than Thursday, April 1st. Thank you!


Cantor Jacqui

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