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When rituals carry us forward

As we enter Shabbat this week, with so much pain being inflicted upon Ukrainians, what are we looking for? Fresh ideas. Fresh energy. Priority clarification. We surely need all of these things. But perhaps what we now need most are systems and rituals that can carry us through these dangerous and menacing days.

We have our hero in Zelenskyy and our villain in Putin. We also have our ironies like Ukraine being such a murderous setting for our Jewish people over the years, having become the most hospitable place in Europe for Jews to settle according to a 2019 Pew Report. We’ve seen inspiring global unity rallying around the people of Ukraine. And, of course, historical analyses abound. This is all interesting. Often, it’s very interesting. But it’s less important than something else: on-the-ground agony.

I fall into this trap of analyzing and prognosticating more often than I’d like to admit. But what’s essential now is knowing the difference between interests and values. Put differently, the difference between what’s interesting and what’s core to who we are as human beings.

Judaism specializes in how we establish and stay faithful to such vital distinctions. It’s by way of systems and daily rituals. This week’s portion of Torah couldn’t be more timely in raising its voice to make this point. The Tabernacle’s granular detail, its bolts and beams, its furnishings and the vessels are assembled and completed by Moses (Ex. 40:33). Our daily and weekly practices make granular tasks come to life as lasting lessons.

Vladimir Zelenskyy knows his audiences quite well. Ukrainians. The free world. And today through his chief of staff, an urgent message to worldwide Jewry. God’s Torah also knows its audience rather well. It knows that we make our way through pain and drama with persistent, steady practice.

Odessa’s Rabbi Kruskal recited the ritual sanctification of Shabbat Friday night as part of an emergency evacuation of 1,000 orphans, among the first million who have fled for their lives. He made Kiddush after dark, as they traveled on Shabbat through life-threatening circumstances. This confirms the power of ritual. Please watch it. It’s not from some Spielberg movie. It’s real and happening now.

Perhaps watch it again this evening prior to your own blessings over wine tonight. And then supplement your daily practice with one new story that reveals the tenderly human from amidst the headlines, and with one deed that strengthens those who urgently need shelter and courage.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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