“Rituals Work, Rituals Work!”
(updated and revised from Bo 5762-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bo, describes the final three plagues: locusts, darkness and the death of the first born. This is followed, in Exodus 12, by the first two mitzvot given to the Jewish People—the sanctification of the new moon and the preparation of the Pascal sacrifice in anticipation of the redemption from Egypt.

Parashat Bo also contains the texts regarding three of the four children who are spoken of at the Passover seder: the wicked child, the simple child and the child that does not know how to ask. The text for the wise child, is found in Deuteronomy 6:20.

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, would often point out that the four children of the Passover Hagaddah could very well represent four generations of Jews of the American Jewish experience. The “wise child” represents the observant grandparents who came from Europe to America, steeped in piety, love of Torah learning and profound knowledge of Jewish tradition. Their offspring, the “wicked child,” grew up in the American “melting pot,” and proceeded to reject his/her parent’s customs and the “old fashioned” ways of traditional Jewish practice and thought. The third generation, the “simple child,” is caught in the conflict between grandfather and son. While he remembers his grandfather, his recollection of him is growing progressively weaker. The simple child is terribly confused, and can only ask, מַה זּאֹת? What is this? The fourth generation–the “child who does not know to ask,” the offspring of the simple child, is the greatest tragedy of all. He was born after his great-grandparents had died and knows only the רָשָׁע –rasha, his totally assimilated grandfather, and his religiously confused father. He does not even know how to ask questions. This is what Rabbi Shlomo Riskin calls in his commentary on the Passover Hagaddah, the “mute American generation,” the generation of children who, when they see their grandmother lighting the festival candles, think it is someone’s birthday.

The Chidah, the great Sephardic halakhist and Kabbalist, maintains that the wicked or prodigal child’s question found in our parasha, מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם? “What is this service of yours?” is the alienated child’s indictment of ritual mitzvot. The rasha, the prodigal child, sees meaning only in the feelings of the heart. Therefore, this child asks, “Why do we need all these mitzvot, all these rituals that are so labor intensive, like kashrut and Shabbat?” In response, the author of the Hagaddah offers, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה השׁם לִי , Because of this, G-d has done to me–meaning that in the merit of these mitzvot, the practical mitzvot, the ritual mitzvot of circumcision and the blood of Passover, we, the Jews, were redeemed. Had he (the prodigal child) been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed, because he would have mocked these practical mitzvot.

The question of the prodigal child reminds me of an encounter that I had in my early teaching career at Lincoln Square Synagogue. I had met a lovely young woman when she was about 16 years old, whose life was in apparent turmoil. Her mother called to ask me whether I could somehow work with her. She came to my classes for a few weeks, but soon dropped out. A year later, she returned, and began to regularly attend my weekly Introduction to Bible class with her new non-Jewish boyfriend, “Shorty.” Shorty loved my class. In fact, every week, about 5 minutes into the class, he would begin to snore. Because he would praise me effusively after each class and tell me how wonderful he felt, I thought of possibly bottling the class for insomniacs. The young couple signed up for a second term. But, after the year was over, I did not hear from or see either of them.

Approximately a year later, I, unexpectedly, received an invitation to the young lady’s wedding. I was delighted to see that the groom’s name was a Jewish sounding name, and that the wedding was to take place at 770 Eastern Parkway, Headquarters of the World Lubavitch movement. I drove to Brooklyn, joyously. Before the chupah ceremony, which was to take place in front of “770,” a reception was held in the Brooklyn Jewish Center, about one block from the Headquarters. A large crowd awaited the groom as he entered the room to veil the bride.

The bride was very beautiful, and looked resplendent sitting on her royal “throne.” Recalling the history and background of this young lady, my eyes welled up with tears. I soon noticed that something just wasn’t right. It took quite a while for the groom to come down the aisle, and he had great difficulty veiling the bride. I then realized that the groom was disabled, he had Cerebral Palsy. A very brilliant young man, he was afflicted with this challenging malady. By then, I was crying. It was a most painful and emotional moment.

Chassidic Jews have a custom of veiling the bride with a thick, opaque veil. Once veiled, the bride really cannot see anything. She can only look down to the ground as she walks.

Watching this scene along with the other guests, were two women, standing beside me, speaking very loudly to one another. Surveying the happenings, one woman spoke plaintively, “Look at that primitive custom! Look at that rag they just put over the poor girl’s face. How barbaric, how medieval! The poor child can’t see a thing!”

The woman went on and on. Finally, I could take it no longer. I turned to the woman who was speaking, glared into her eyes, and proceeded to say in a most hostile manner: “Lady, had this ceremony taken place in the Himalayas with a guru presiding, you probably would have said, ‘How quaint, how interesting, how intriguing. I wonder what all this means?’ But, because it’s Jewish, you have nothing but disdain for it!” The woman was, rightfully, taken aback. After recovering, she responded, saying to me something that was true some thirty-five years ago, “Young man, I’ll have you know that I feel like a very good Jew in my heart!”

I should have left well enough alone. But, I guess because I was so deeply upset, (and, after all, I’m from the Bronx!) I responded–which I regret to this day. “Lady,” I said. “Feeling like a good Jew in your heart doesn’t make you any more a good Jew, than feeling like an astronaut in your heart puts you on the moon!” She slapped me. No. But, as you can imagine, it was an extremely unpleasant encounter.

The wedding ceremony was followed by a reception. The guests lined up to congratulate the bride and groom and their respective parents. I greeted the bride’s parents, who appeared quite happy to see me. The bride’s mother then turned to me and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my sister, the bride’s aunt.” I took one look at the woman and my world turned black! I responded sheepishly, “We’ve already met.” It was, of course, the woman with whom I had the nasty encounter. Of course, I apologized profusely!

Now truth is, that feeling like a “good Jew” in one’s heart is really quiteimportant, because without that feeling we can get nowhere. But, feeling like a good Jew in one’s heart is simply not enough. The rituals and the practices are critical. Without the rituals we are practicing an eviscerated form of Judaism—”Play Dough” or “Mother Goose” Judaism, if you will.

The rituals of Judaism are vitally important. They are the flesh that covers the bones. They give substance and meaning to the words and the texts. Otherwise, all of Judaism is but warmed-over Ethical Humanism. That is why, if the prodigal child renounces his or her devotion to the rituals of Judaism, the author of the Hagaddah is probably right in saying, אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל, had he been there, in Egypt, he wouldn’t have been saved, because he would have assimilated and been left behind in Egypt!

That is why we must emphasize, again and again, that “Rituals work!”

And, especially when parents and grandparents provide positive models for their children and grandchildren–“Rituals do indeed work!”

May you be blessed.