I have been thinking about the late 1960’s lately. I was ten years old in 1968. The civil rights movement was in full swing and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Profound counter culture movements (beatniks and hippies, etc.) reflected the rebelliousness of the era, ultimately influenced American culture.

The Vietnam war raged. We remember Kent State, Columbia and Berkeley from the protests and tragedies of that era. The 1968 presidential election was marred by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Black Power and feminism also radically impacted American.

We were never the same after those years.

What is it about times of upheaval, change and uncertainty that leads to positive and enduring change? What tools do we have to guide us out of the maelstrom of the chaos that enswirls us?

These questions resonate for me as I approach Parashat Vayikra, the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus. Our ancestors responded to the chaos around them by creating and refining ritual structures. In their attention to the details of the priestly rituals in the Mishkan, and then the Temple, they sought to collect the Divine energy that would help them to feel safe and secure. It offered them a window into ultimate meaning — the MIshkan was the place where the presence of the Eternal One dwelled; the place where their earthly lives could experience eternity. The priests guided the people there through ritual.

In our world today we are also experiencing turbulence, uncertainty, and fast-moving cultural changes that will shape the years to come. Change does not come easily.

Some have turned to fundamentalism to stave off despair or reject the emptiness of secularism. The desire for structures of meaning is understandable, especially with the light of Vayikra shining on it. Yet, all three Abrahamic faiths are being rocked by the loud voices of their extremist fundamentalist minorities.. Each faith community is struggling against  the destructive pull of a small, but loud few.

It is helpful to recognize that this trend is both old and new, explained by the context of our turbulent times. Yet, for most of us, such structures are not compelling or sufficient. Still, aspects of the religious rituals and lifestyles of tradition hold great potential for us too. We too seek the comfort of faith. We need the experience of meaning. Even when we are not choosing all of the answers of past generations, we are still asking the same questions.

In many ways we are engaged in the same search and the same process as the wilderness generation that is described in Vayikra. We are examining what we have received in the traditions of the past to shape the most meaningful and spiritually rich rituals. We are creating the mishkan yet again — our place for the indwelling of the Divine presence in our hearts and our lives.

American Jews have been bringing many forms of creative spirit to our rituals and customs. Israeli Jews have a special opportunity to mold and shape Jewish rituals from the places of our people’s birth. Many wonderful new creative forms of Jewish engagement  are emerging in an Israeli Jewish cultural renaissance. We have a great deal to learn from each other.

The poetry of Yehuda Amichai is one of the most beautiful tools to bridge our communities. He knew how to capture the earthly and the heavenly, in the chasm between the old and the new.  I conclude with a 1967 Amichai poem upon the reunification of Jerusalem.

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned

Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.

I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,

Not far from Shechem Gate, a shop

full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread

Of every color; and snaps and buckles.

Brightly lit and many  colored like the open Holy Ark.

 

I said to him in my heart that my father too

 

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades

And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now

While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.

 

When I concluded it was the hour of Neilah (closing of the gates)

He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate

As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

Yehuda Amichai

(from Achshav B’ra’ash (“Now Noisily) (Schocken 1975), page 11-12, translation by RIchard Silverstein

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