What is it about rituals we find so comforting? Is it knowing that some things, not many, in our lives are immutable, repeated generation after generation? Last night at the Seder it was difficult to separate the kids from their Blackberries and i-Phones or to restrain them from texting, but the four questions were still asked by the youngest at the table, the matzoh was arranged just so on the plates and memories are created, year after year, indelible like the food, always, invariably the same.
Whenever I walk into a church, the slightly acrid smell of incense is strangely familiar and if I sit into a pew, the words of the prayers I thought long forgotten come back, the proceedings known to me and I am invariably enveloped in a sense of comfort, not religious, more akin to belonging. I suppose that is the fundamental meaning of rituals, to link us to our tribe, no matter what the circumstances or the centuries or the geography.
We are creatures of habit, despite the ease of travel or the changes chosen or forced. We are prone to lose our inner bearings and walking into a religious ritual from a time past, a family or just a personal one helps us redefine our place in life. No matter where I am, all my days start the same way, with the same gestures – if I am travelling, I will create rituals to match the new space I inhabit – it’s my way to prepare for the day, an easier way of stepping from the known into the great adventure of the day ahead.
Twenty years from now, the kids sitting at the table last night will ask the same questions of their children, whether they believe in the answers or not. It doesn’t much matter. Eating matzoh, reciting the plagues, decorating a Christmas tree, serving the same dinner every year, performing a propitiatory dance, whatever the expression of a faith or a family might be, will make them feel connected to their elders and all their ancestors before them and will perpetuate the sense of tribe we innately seem to need. No matter the place or time.