What happens when rituals meant to give us structure become pressing demands on our limited time? Do we determine that we are too busy to keep doing a ritual that, in weeks or years past, we felt added meaning to our lives? Do we do the ritual but resent the effort required to prepare and carry it out?
A religious sensibility includes an understanding that routines are boring and magical. Bedside prayers at night, reciting the Shema for example, is one more thing to do before getting a child to sleep or oneself to bed; and yet, every now and then, it is the pause that allows for a great conversation or a chance to clear one’s head before it hits the pillow. On a daily basis, the recitation of prayer can be monotonous; but, when it opens the door to what is really needed on a particular night, it is wondrous.
That is the goal: We want religion to work for us. We want it to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” At least, that’s what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said he wanted his preaching to do. The moral universe seemed to Niebuhr to require both comfort and affliction, properly applied. Religion, for him, had an important role to play.
Even with today’s moral challenges as clarion calls of religious meaning, life’s everyday tasks threaten to reduce that role to the equivalent of checking email. Religion and ritual, in particular, need to gain relevance beyond a fishing expedition for meaning. Perhaps that is why I am so struck by the smaller moments and messages of Jewish practice. They present themselves as less burdensome entry points and paradoxically greater impact.
This month, I made a point of going to synagogue specifically to hear the special reading of the prophets. Last week marked the beginning of a series of prophetic readings of consolation. Hearing Isaiah’s words, “Be comforted, be comforted, My People,” resonated with me. In the moment, they meant little; the ritual did not really work. Knowing, though, that the Jewish calendar goes out of its way to turn mourning into comfort reminded me that religion and ritual might just “comfort the afflicted.” The Hebrew month of Av, famous for its days of mourning the loss of both Temples in Jerusalem (and many persecutions throughout history) has a special name, Menachem Av, literally Av the Consoler.
How powerful is it to think that, right when we transition from summer whimsy to school seriousness, Judaism wants us to do nothing major just to show us comfort is built into something as small as the name of the month?! During the year, we will be overwhelmed and overburdened. We will struggle through the daily grind. Nevertheless, the rituals we might sometimes wish to set aside stand as a bulwark of opportunity for magic, meaning, and more of what we may most need: comfort.
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