Jewish Rituals and How They Carry Us Through

I feel no shame in admitting that I have cried more in the last two months than I have in the last two years. Whether it be due to grief, anxiety, fear, or even my own children's milestone events (I blubbered my way through my son's Elementary School graduation) my soul has craved (and acted on) the need for relief. If I am being honest, I feel the tears building as I write this. Part of this may be physical exhaustion, part of it is just the sheer weight of everything that has taken place in my life either directly to me, or to loved ones in the past few months. 

While on a walk alongside the Kineret last week in Israel, I had the opportunity to discuss how different Jewish communities around the world handle freedom to practice or, in some cases, the lack thereof with two fantastic individuals. To no surprise, we all came to the agreement that there is one thing that binds Jewish practice across borders: Life Cycle rituals. For those of you who do not know what these are, they are the rituals that mark important milestones in Jewish life: from birth, to marriage, to death. What we found through our exchange was that, in some cases, the smaller the community, the less flexibility there was to adapting the rituals attached to these Life Cycles; it is as if we hold on to these long-standing rituals as the one thing that binds us both to one another, and to our history, regardless of how you practice your Judaism. 

From an academic perspective, we learn that it is within human nature to attach ourselves to rituals for comfort since they provide a level of predictability. Simply put, we do not do well when we don't know whats coming next, so we set rituals in place as a way of easing transitions. But what is it about these rituals that binds us from a religious perspective? What makes Jewish people across the world, despite their level of practice, connect so deeply to these rituals?

I have two particular favorites in my Jewish practice: the Birkat HaMazon (prayer after the meal) and Havdallah (separation of the Sabbath from the remainder of the week). These two rituals bring up memories of my childhood that I hold on to whenever the world feels a little darker. I joyfully remember chanting the Birkat HaMazon with the rest of camp on Friday night at the top of our lungs, and subsequently crying the next night during Havdallah as our time together was coming to an end. Alternatively, I also have rituals that bring me much comfort when sadness is inevitable, such as Conservative Jewish burial practices (I say Conservative because that is how I was raised) and Shiva (accompanying the mourners for seven days after burial through prayer). While the last two may seem morbid, they make grief more bearable, mainly because I know that I am not alone in its practice. When my cousin past this past year, I felt the terror set in when I was told they would not sit Shiva since she had died during Sukkot, which prohibits it. I reached out to my rabbi to try to process this, as it felt almost cruel to deprive mourners of this at a time when it is so needed. 

I spent today watching Havdallah videos from last week in Israel. Partly because they bring me joy, but also because I struggle deeply with certain transitions and with unpredictability. The last two months had been so incredibly taxing to my mental health, that being able to chant the prayer after the meal on Shabbat and Havdallah felt like my own personal emotional release. In retrospect, it gives me an even deeper appreciation for Jewish rituals, as no matter when they come, they are there to ease our soul. We don't realize the weight they carry until we need them and, when they come, they feel like that hug that we had desperately been craving for that would squeeze the pain out of our bodies and restore some peace within us.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me well enough that the way that I practice my Judaism is continuously evolving, as I try to find my place and my peace. However, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the thing I am most grateful for in Judaism is that it gives us an opportunity to connect with one another, whether it be through melody of liturgy, to the silence of mourning; it is there to remind us that we have a world full of people ready to hold us when we need it most.


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