We do not just learn from books, lectures or films. Whether or not we realize it, what we learn most profoundly is what we learn from our actions. This insight is what drives ritual performance in many religious traditions. The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences explains that rituals, at their best, can effect cognitive and social change for the betterment of the individual and society. One way it does this is by rendering complex ideas more straightforward. The repetition of rituals then allows individuals to make profound ideas a part of their habit of thinking.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinhas, presents the ritual sacrifices brought on special occasions such as the Sabbath and Holidays. It also presents the tamid offering which was brought twice-daily. This offering consisted of a lamb, a modest mixture of flour and oil, and a small wine libation. The offering itself was offered by the cohanim (descendants of Aaron who served as the Temple priests) as other members of the tribe of Levi sang a choral accompaniment, all while representatives of the rest of the people attended to witness the offering. That this was a beloved ritual is reflected by the fact that to this day, thousands of years since it has actually been enacted, its description is still read as part of Judaism’s daily prayers in the morning and afternoon. But what “complex ideas” could it have been trying to teach? And how do we connect with them now? These are the questions that Benjamin Dias Brandon, a rabbinic leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in 18th C. Amsterdam, sought to answer.
He writes that the offering of the lamb was a symbolic reminder that “one should dedicate their physical self to a higher purpose”. The modest amount of flour offered, he continues, teaches that one should “be sustained with little, only enough as is needed.” That the flour was mixed with oil was to remind a person that their habits of consumption should be those that acquire a person “a good name” . Lastly, the small wine libation was another nod to the idea of moderation (see his Orot Hamitzvot for more). In sum, while the tamid offering was a ritual act of devotion to God, it was also a powerful set of lessons offered to the people each and every day; lessons about being committed to something greater than oneself, about behaving in a way that does honor to our best selves, and about living life with moderation and balance.
While ritual sometimes feels uninspired or like a rote performance at best, let’s strive to remember that it contains the powerful capacity to teach and thus, it becomes incumbent upon us to investigate its lessons and take them to heart each time we engage in it. When we read about the tamid offering in the parasha or in daily prayer, let’s strive to bring commitment to our ideals back into focus, let’s consider the legacy we are creating, and let’s seek to restore balance to our wants. If we succeed even just a bit, we will have succeeded in making one of our daily rituals an experience of daily growth and transformation.