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Home » Pekudi, Politics, Science, Vayakhel

Vayakhel Pekudei: Ritual With Passion

Submitted by on March 7, 2010 – 12:50 amNo Comment | 813 views

The Conundrum

I have a friend, a brilliant intellectual, who does not suffer fools lightly. From time to time I invite him to Synagogue and he reminds me that he does not have much tolerance for those who make too much of ritual and pay little heed to its underlying philosophy.

Ritual without meaning saps our spirit. The soul cannot flourish in a straitjacket; it longs for enrichment and meaning. Mindless repetition of ancient traditions is a banal exercise that leaves the soul feeling numb. It is no wonder that such souls come of age with little love for ritual and opt instead for a more spiritual and philosophical approach to religion.

Many are the Jews that have dispensed with ritual and embraced an entirely philosophical approach. There is an allure to the pursuit of knowledge that lifts one beyond the prosaic concerns of here and now; the mystique nurtures the spirit and stirs the passion by endowing life with meaning. ritual with passion - innerstreamThe problem is that this non ritual approach is also without staying power because passion without concrete expression is not lasting. This approach rarely survives past three generations; the grandchildren either dispense with religion completely or opt for a more ritualized form.

Ritual without passion fails to thrive, but passion without ritual fails to survive; what to do?

The Politics of Science

I think we can take a lesson from the politics of science. If there were one area that one would hope is without politics it is science. Sadly, this bastion also suffers from the ailment of politics; it is the politics of money.

The scientific community is generally divided into two groups; academia and industry. The academic is driven by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; it strives to preserve the purity of science. Scientists employed by pharmaceutical and other industry view science through the prism of its application. They seek to apply knowledge in the way that most benefits society. It is no secret that industry’s motive is financial, but it can hardly profit without bettering the lot of society.

The tension between the two communities lies in its agenda. The academic charges that the private scientist has sold his integrity to the almighty dollar by trying to turn a profit. His interests lie only in subjects with financial prospect; he no longer pursues knowledge for its own sake. The pharmaceutical scientist points out that knowledge without concretized application is of no merit; no public or private agency would award a grant to fund scientific study that is without utilitarian value. The purity of scientific inquiry is laudable in the ivory tower, but in the real world such passion must be given concrete application to survive.

Both points are valid. Academic scientists are only funded when their findings can improve our lot and industry scientists can only be certain of their findings when they are corroborated by those who broaden the search and preserve its integrity by seeking knowledge for its own sake.

Just like our earlier conundrum about ritual and passion; Industry without academia would fail to thrive, but academia without industry would fail to survive. The system requires a combined effort to move forward with success.

We now return to ritual and passion. Ritual and passion are like short blankets, one covering the head, the other, the feet. Opting for either leaves the other end exposed. But we need not select one over the other; we could opt for both. We can enrich the observance of ritual by suffusing it with its underpinning philosophy and we can give concrete application to our philosophy through observing the rituals that express it. We can have ritual with passion and cover both sides; the ritual secures our observance so that Judaism can survive, the philosophy nurtures our soul so that Judaism can thrive.

Children raised in this environment learn to love the ritual as much as its philosophy. It touches their soul, inspires their emotions and unleashes their inner core. These children can embrace Judaism to its fullest and are perfectly positioned to achieve continuity. (1)

Build Me A Sanctuary

The last two portions of the book of Exodus discuss the building of the tabernacle. First the Torah describes the building of the tabernacle’s outer shell; its roof and walls. Then the Torah describes the fashioning of the ark, show-table, candelabra and altars. Then the Torah describes the sewing of the priestly vestments. Then the actual assembly of the tabernacle, then the order in which the vessels were brought into the tabernacle and finally the Torah describes the priests as they donned their vestments.

At no point in the narrative does the Torah pause to inform us that these items were sacred or endowed with a Divine aura. It is only after the tabernacle was assembled, the vessels put in place and the vestments worn by the priests in the service of G-d that the Torah informs us of the Divine glory that filled the tabernacle. This is because vessels without vestments just as vestments without vessels can not be used in the service of G-d. To serve G-d we must fulfill every aspect of the commandment and only then are we true servants.

Rituals garb our religious sentiment in practices that express inner beauty just like the priestly vestments gave expression to the nobility of the priesthood; the vestments thus serve as a metaphor for the ritual. The vessels serve as metaphors for the philosophy; the ornate vessels gave meaning and depth to the tabernacle just like our quest for meaning and understanding enriches our otherwise empty ritual.

Ritual and philosophy are wings and just like a bird cannot fly with a single wing so can neither ritual nor philosophy carry us aloft and bind us to G-d. But taken together, the ritual underscored by its philosophy and the philosophy expressed through ritual, the two bind the Jew to G-d.

When the vestments met the vessels in the service of G-d, then “A cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of G-d filled the tabernacle.” (2) It is only through the convergence of vestments and vessels, outer ritual and inner meaning that we truly reach beyond ourselves and connect with G-d. This brings out the innate grandeur of our soul, the towering spirit of our core and the existential bond that we share with G-d. This form of religion, ritual with passion, is enduring; it not only survives, it also thrives. (3)


  1. There
    is no magic pill that ensures continuity; it all depends on the child’s
    nature, the family’s dynamics and the circumstances of life. This
    approach to Judaism, however, adopts the strong points of ritual and
    passion giving parents a chance to put their best foot forward. In the
    end success is in G-d’s hands. We can only do our best and then we can
  2. Exodus 40:34
  3. This
    essay is based on a talk given by, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the
    Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM,  on March 11, 1961.
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