The Numbers:13 Project
Have the Levites stand in front of Aaron and his sons and then present them as a wave offering to the Lord. Numbers 8:13
I invented a ritual and didn’t tell anyone that I made it up.
During the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the tradition in synagogue is to form a procession of those carrying the four species noted in the Bible for the holiday – myrtle, willow, citron and, important to my ritual, palm branch. The spectacle is as old as it is humorous. Though the chant as we circle the sanctuary is a very serious “save us, save us,” the solemn recitation of God’s attributes as most of the assembled shuffle to the prescribed melody is part Gregorian, part pagan and more than slightly carnal. The ancient soul within me feels a part of a practice thousands of years old. The modern funny bone within me cannot help but giggle.
That’s not the ritual I made up. Mine comes at the end, when the procession dissolves into a crowd of people in the front of the sanctuary looking like a forest of date-palm sprouts. The liturgy at that point includes a reference to the “wave offering” in the Temple, and it was our custom to sing a rousing melody to the words, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance…” At that point, I would take my place before the assemblage, face them as I might were I the conductor of an All-Palm Orchestra, and begin to wave my four species back and forth. Of course, everyone followed suit. It looked like a breeze in a small grove or, perhaps, a very tiny ballpark where the fans have lost interest in the game.
I say it is a ritual because, after very few years, the congregation needed no prompting. In fact, though I have retired from my congregational duties (and not shared my private amusement with my successor), the congregation continues to do the wave without me. It makes me gleeful. I have little remorse that anyone who spent years in my synagogue and then joined elsewhere would wonder why that ritual is not performed in their new congregation. Jocularity, jocularity.
It could be that the pious among my readers will take great umbrage at my appropriation of sacred practice. To you I say, “Sorry about that, Chief.” But though I won’t pretend to piety in introducing my little ceremonial addendum, I take a certain satisfaction that I engaged a whole cohort of people who had little in common other than being Jewish in a moment that gave them a sense of being an integral part of a greater whole. Old and young, religiously fluent and unfamiliar, denominationally diverse, theologically serious and culturally flippant, everyone was able to catch the wave. For a minute, they understood themselves to be a part of something both unifying and mysterious (“Why are we waving?” someone would always ask me. I always deflected the question.).
Moments like my little private joke have a very serious public function. The larger the crowd, the more diverse it will certainly be. In a crowd of almost 330 million, the current population of the United States, there are almost as many opinions. (Thank goodness it isn’t 330 million Jews – there would be 440 million opinions.) We need common rituals, open to all, to give us a sense of belonging to a large community. They must connect us to the old and persuade us that it is renewed in our time. They save us, and they bless our people.
I am tempted to say that the ritual of buying a mattress on federal holiday weekends is what seems to unify Americans, but I am afraid you will take that seriously and it will cost you hundreds of dollars. We do have rituals – Thanksgiving dinner, Memorial Day remembrances – and cookouts, Labor Day picnics and campaign kick-offs. Not everyone participates in them the same way, and many of them have precious little to do with the reason for the holiday they mark, but they give us a sense of belonging together.
Of course, the most prominent of all is the Fourth of July. It is a day to celebrate our founding, our common heritage, our mission and values. Communities large and small have processions (or, if you prefer, parades) made up of all kinds of citizens and residents, doing the kinds of things the founding generation never did. They wave from the backs of convertibles, ride tiny cars in formation, play patriotic music badly on under-practiced brass instruments, dress small children in blue shirts festooned with patches and pack numbers and march them in the hot sun. Those are rituals that sound as ridiculous as waving palm branches when I describe them that way, but they have unifying meaning to the folks along the parade route, even if they can’t tell you what it is. At the end of the day, we light up the sky with fireworks displays, a Chinese custom that we nonetheless imagine recalls the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
There is a lot to argue about in the United States these days, but we all ought to rise up in outrage at any attempt to appropriate Independence Day for partisan (well, in fact, personal) purposes. It seems to many, including me, that some of the seams that hold us together are starting to give way. What tightens them are turkey dinners, hot dogs, tee-ball games and Sousa marches. When some narcissist wants to transform a national palm-waving into a manufactured testimonial to himself, it is time to take back the night.
Save our people and bless our inheritance.