Friday, March 26, 2010

Inventing Ritual

As Passover approaches, I find myself questioning many of the rituals. We say that we recline, but we sit in our normal dinner chairs. We tell stories about the four sons, even though in my family neither my sister, nor my brother nor I had sons. And the story isn’t one I would want to tell a son if I had one.

The story tells parents how to answer questions about Passover from four types of sons: wise, wicked, simple, and one who does not know how to ask. It is considered WISE if the son asks what are the commandments for the Passover. It is considered WICKED if the son asks, “What does this drudgery mean to you?” It is considered SIMPLE if the son asks, “What’s this?” And the one who does not know how to ask, asks nothing.

I never understood why it is considered WISE to ask what the commandments for Passover are. The phrasing of such a question implies that the child is old enough to know how to read, and could have read the story of Exodus for himself before the Passover meal.

It is even more strange to consider the thoughtful question: “What does this drudgery mean to you?” as WICKED. This is a question that invites a thoughtful answer. The child sees the rituals as drudgery, rather than an act of love. But he’s not ruling out the possibility that they have value. A WICKED child might say, “I have no respect for your rituals and I don’t care what they mean to you. I’m going to bring leavened bread into the house and eat it on front of you all week long.”

“What’s this?” is really the same question as “What does this (act of drudgery) mean to you?” This is yet another son who didn’t bother to read Exodus before coming to dinner. It’s not that long a story. These days you can even find illustrated versions on the web.

And the child who does not ask – he might simply be so trusting that whatever his parents do is okay with him. All he needs to do is listen to the telling of the story of the Exodus, which is the main event of the meal. He feels no need to ask. He trusts that his parents will tell him what he needs to know, when he needs to know it.

I can see no purpose to telling this ritual story, so I won’t be telling it this year, even though I do now have a grandson who is old enough to ask questions, but does not yet know how to read. I see the point in telling the story of the Exodus. I see no point in telling about 4 sons whom I have never met, none of whom seem WISE or WICKED to me.

I have often wondered where such odd rituals come from.

At a recent meeting of local dramatists, I heard a story about the origin of a new ritual – throwing water out the window.

The ritual was invented at a dramatists meeting. These dramatists wanted to create a new ritual to help people get rid of thoughts, feelings, parts of their past, that they no longer wanted in their lives. Their solution was to have every person in the group symbolically pour water from a pitcher into a bowl. When everybody was done, the leaders pours the water in the bowl out the window. Some of the participants in this ritual liked it enough that they have repeated it on their own.

These same questions could be asked about this new ritual.

Since I know the story of the water throwing ritual, I don’t need to ask questions. But anybody seeing it for the first time, might be curious. We all have different ways of showing our curiosity. We all have different levels of desire to participate in rituals.

It just seems to be something humans like to do. There’s no need to classify that as WISE or WICKED.

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