Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Power of Ritual


Shabbat HaHodesh
Parshat Tazria
24 Adar II, 5771
March 30th, 2011

The Rabbis teach that when Moshe asks to see God, God passes before Moshe and shows him the Divine back (as it were), for no human can see God’s face and live. What Moshe saw was the knot of God’s head tefillin.

I have shopped for a few sets myself. Divine tefillin are probably really expensive.

The question, of course, is why. Of all Beings, it seems like God would have a pass on tefillin. The answer, I believe, lies in the difference between speech and ritual.

Speech is a lousy way to express belief. This is because we have the power to lie, which is not as bad as it sounds. We often need to lie in order to coexist with each other. If we shared exactly what we thought with other people, we would kill each other. One of speech’s important jobs is to obfuscate what we think so that we can have civilization. But this power to cloud men’s minds makes speech unreliable.

Actions are much more dependable – we’ve either done something, or we haven’t. Nothing tells more about what people really believe than what they actually do. So in order to make profound statements of meaning, the incontrovertible kind, we imbue a specific action with a value or idea – that is, performing the action expresses something meaningful. Actions thus imbued are called rituals. Rituals are extremely powerful.

This is the message of God’s tefillin. In the end, the story of what we value will be told through what we have done, not through what we have said. Rituals are the truest expression of our beliefs.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Perlo, I agree that actions do speak louder than words. However, speech is often tied to one's actions and to most Jewish ritual. That's why we say brachot, right? In regards to tefillin, action seems to be tied to speech and written language. This is just based on what I've read and observed. Like most other women I know, I've never actually worn tefillin.