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The Rituals of Democracy

(Written for Shabbat Bo, January 22, 2021, and originally published at The Times of Israel as “The Rituals of American Democracy” Used with kind permission.)

Wednesday morning, I settled in to watch the inaugural events unfold. I was filled with anticipation and relief that the last four years were over, and a new era was about to begin. I was transfixed watching the guests arrive at the Capitol only two weeks after the temple of democracy was overrun by a seditious mob.

I stood for the anthem, placed my hand over my heart for the pledge, sang “Amazing Grace” when Garth Brooks invited us to do so, and reveled in Amanda Gorman’s artistry. When the formal inauguration was over and I was sitting alone in my living room, I realized in a powerful yet obvious way, how much I needed all of that ritual. I loved the flags on the mall, the music, the oaths, the playing of Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – all of it. It may seem strange that as a rabbi, this fact would be surprising to me, yet I had been in my own state of suspended emotion for such a long time, that I didn’t realize what I needed. No doubt ritual can feel routinized, and even boring. But as CNN commentator Van Jones noted during the coverage, “Look some of this stuff is boring. But to me? Boring is the new thrilling.”

The power of ritual reminds us that when we mark time, space, and experience with sacred elements that transcend a particular moment, we are transported beyond our current circumstances and connect with the past as well as the present. As we dive deeper into the story of the Exodus, we aren’t just told the story of liberation, but remarkably, the reader is also instructed on the ritual telling of the story, and how its impact will be felt for generations. Much of those directions are packed into this week’s portion of Bo. In it, we are reminded just how long we have been practicing Jewish rituals and observances, and what our service to God and community might mean to us.

Following the eighth and ninth plagues, the people prepare to leave Egypt. They make a Pesakh (Passover) offering and eat it with their sandals on their feet, ready to go. They put blood on the doorposts, and the 10th plague is brought down, killing all the first born of Egypt. The text instructs the Israelites and us, that this is a ritual for all time. The Torah imagines God saying to Moses and the people, that in the future, their children will ask, “mah ha’avodah hazot lachem?” What does this ritual, this service, mean to you?

Four times in the Torah we find variations on this question poised on the lips of our children. Three of them occur in this portion (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, and 13:14) and one other in Deuteronomy (6:20). Each one of them garners a different answer. The service is 1) because of the sacrifice of Pesah, when God passed over the houses of the Israelites and struck down the Egyptians, 2) because of what “God did for me when I went forth from Egypt,” 3) because it was due to the strength of God that we came forth from Egypt, and 4) that we were slaves in Egypt and God freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

It is almost as if each response is geared to a different generation. Jews historically have responded to our heritage in different ways. Sometimes we have needed “proof,” sometimes rationale, sometimes we have needed mythic connection, and sometimes, like today, many people hunger for meaning. These four questions will later give rise to the four children in the Passover Haggadah who are imagined to be motivated differently by the mythic story of the Exodus and its meaning for future generations of Jews.

We can certainly interpret these questions to reflect this moment in America as well. The rituals of democracy are a there to remind us of our history: how far we have come, and how much work there is still to do; what we have each endured on the way to this moment; the sources of strength which have bolstered our faith in America; and that we should never forget the challenges we have faced as a nation.

Today we witnessed the peaceful transfer of power in Washington, and the gifts of that ritualized process were breathtaking. I found myself crying through the ceremony mostly because the thoughtful return of the rituals of democracy reminded me of what the United States values, and what is possible when leaders lead with their whole soul.

So, what does all this mean to you? The sacred myth of the Exodus has helped us to situate ourselves in history and orient us towards questions of faith and community. The Exodus story is one that challenges tyranny and liberates oppression and identifies those qualities as Godly. We need this sacred myth to inform and structure our lives as Jews because by knowing why we do what we do, what it all means to us, and by teaching it to our children, we strengthen their understanding of their place in the world.

All the more so are these questions prescient right now. What does our Constitution, our freedom, and the vision of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal” mean to us, now? We needed the inauguration rituals of today to inform and structure our lives as Americans because by knowing why we do what we do, what it all means to us, and by teaching it to our children, we strengthen their understanding of their place in the world.

We must continue to teach our children that our master stories – as Jews and Americans – are not only a model for our own pursuit of justice, but how we will continue to locate ourselves in 2021. The Torah offers many details about what is supposed to happen once the Israelites enter the Promised Land, but the Torah ends before the Israelites arrive, thus rendering the text as an aspirational document, seeking to uphold the values and vision of a just society. We have made this story of liberation our sacred mythology; it teaches us the universal message of speaking truth to power, and that we must continue to use this story to make sense in a senseless world. In doing so, we can turn the dark night of weeping and mourning into a dawn of joy and justice.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, Calif.

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