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Parashat Bo 5783 - The Invention of Ritual

Ritual is an essential component of Judaism. Zionist essayist Ahad Ha’am famously said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Having a process for expressing both our faith and our identity is integral to maintaining the continuity of purpose and providing value to practitioners. When we need to DO something, Judaism gives us practices that help us reconnect with one another and with our sense of spirituality.


It is intriguing, then, that we see the first ever example of formalized ritual in Parashat Bo, this week’s Torah portion. Up to this point, there have been certain customs established, like the process of circumcision, and there has been a non-standardized process of building alters to God, but there has not been a structured process for making specific time for Jewish practice. Circumcision, after all, only happens once (we hope…) and building an alter seems to be a kind of ecstatic practice. But in preparation for the Exodus, we hear about a ritual we are meant to repeat on a regular basis.


In Exodus 12:14, we read “This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to Adonai throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.” What is perhaps most amazing about this command is that we actually follow it. All across the world, Jews come together on an annual basis to commemorate and participate in the ritual that was crafted that day. It is one of the longest practiced rituals in world history, and has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. In fact, in most surveys of the American Jewish community, religious engagement is down across the board, with the great exception being that the vast majority of all Jewishly affiliated individuals participating in some kind of Passover Seder each year. This commandment, it seems, contains within it the secret ingredient to impactful, lasting religious connection.


Judaism is often described as a religion of deed, rather than creed. It is far less about what you believe than how you put that belief out into the world through the actions you make. And this week, we see a validation of the kind of religious ritual that helps to bind a people together and remind us of our shared experience. We are told that in every generation, we are meant to behave as if we ourselves were the ones who had left Egypt, and to teach our children what it meant to be liberated from bondage. This week’s Torah portion helps to create practices that make that experience tangible, relatable, and accessible, not only for the Israelites described in the text, but also for us today.


For so many, the rituals of Passover is both the earliest and most profound memory of impactful Judaism. This week’s Torah portion helps to change the tone for the identity of the people moving forward. While being and Israelite had been an ethnicity in the biblical narrative to this point, we begin to see the transformation of the people into a nation. And that can only happen when we establish the practices that help to establish and solidify both what we believe and what we do to express that belief.

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