My friend Chick Silberman wrote: “So why do you need to talk about God – unless congregants ask you? I try to avoid the subject and focus on the power of ritual.”
Sounds good to me – I’m a big fan of ritual. Always have been. I’ve never understood the people who complain about “empty rituals.” It’s certainly not the rituals’ faults. They’re only empty because the people performing them don’t bother to infuse them with meaning.
Any ritual can be considered empty. Washing your hands, for instance. You step up to the sink, soap, rinse, dry, leave. No big deal. Doesn’t take much thought.
But what happens if you pause and think about what you’re doing? If you’re an environmentalist, like my daughter Ellie, hand-washing becomes a ritual of conservation. She approaches the use of water with a certain mindfulness, thinking about the effects her actions have on others, on the planet, on the future.
Judaism has a hand-washing ritual that’s performed before eating bread. The accompanying blessing is: “Blessed are you God, our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.” Then a separate blessing is said over the bread.
Here too, the idea is not cleanliness but rather mindfulness. Rabbi Louis Jacobs points out, “It has to be appreciated that this ritual washing of the hands has nothing to do with physical cleanliness. On hygienic grounds, the hands are obviously to be clean of dirt before food is eaten. Even when the hands are physically clean they are still required to be ritually washed.”
So why the ritual washing? Jacobs says, “The act of washing the hands in this sense is seen as the introduction of the holiness ideal into the mundane life of the Jew.”
In other words, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman put it, “Though not all of life is holy, the holy can come bursting through the everyday at any time.”
Of course this concept of holiness, not to mention the blessing itself, brings us full circle, right back to God again.