Posted on March 14, 2011 by Tamara Frankel
I must tell you that it feels a little strange to write this email to you from the other side of the ocean. Thank God, I arrived safe and sound in New York on Wednesday (even though I had to wait for almost an hour in the INTERNATIONAL customs line!) But, once I left Newark, I was able to enjoy the treasures of Jewish life in America: over-priced yet extremely tasty bagels and cream cheese, great shopping, non-aggressive public transportation and of course, corn beef.
As I was making my rounds through the shoe department at Lord & Taylor, I noticed that a customer had some shmutz on her head. I didn’t think too much of it, until her friend had the same grey blob on your forehead. I turned to my friend, Amy and said, “Is today Ash Wednesday?” The cashier at Lord & Taylor replied, “Yes.” And then it was clear: we were no longer in Israel.
But something really struck me about this interaction in the shoe department. What was Ash Wednesday all about? Was it weird that so many people were visibly displaying their religious practices (and beliefs)? Did they care if others looked at them strangely? Did they even notice?
So this morning I found myself in the New York City Public Library– while waiting to meet my friend, Phil, for some more over-priced kosher food–looking up the origins and significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I learned this morning, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a preparatory period of repentance leading up to Easter. The main ritual of Ash Wednesday is as follows: the clergy dips his fingers in bowl of ashes (from burnt palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday) and paints a cross on one’s forehead and says (depending on the community’s custom one of these verses): “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) This ritual is meant to ignite in one’s self the call to repent and improve one’s relationship with God and others.
Mulling over this new knowledge with Amy and Phil over brunch – we’re kind of like The 3 Musketeers, I asked how this might connect to the place of ritual in Jewish life and more specifically the detailed instructional guide known as Leviticus (Vayikra), the parsha and third book of Chumash we began this Shabbat. Rashi asks at the beginning of Parshat Vayikra: Why does the Torah tell us that God called Moses and then spoke to him?
א) וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
1) And the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the tent of meeting saying:
ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, אָדָם כִּי-יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן, לַיהוָה–מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה, מִן-הַבָּקָר וּמִן-הַצֹּאן, תַּקְרִיבוּ, אֶת-קָרְבַּנְכֶם
2) Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When any man of you bring an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock. (Lev. 1:1-2)
Isn’t that redundant?! Why does God need to call Moses and speak to him? Why the grand introduction for a list of how to bring an offering for God?
Rashi explains that this calling is “a language of affection”. In other words, God called out to Moses to show that God wanted Moses not only to disseminate laws and values to the Jewish People, but to enter into a relationship with God. As the book of Vayikra is also named Torat Kohanim (The Doctrine of the Priests), this “calling” of God to Moses may signal to the priests that they too can feel intimately connected to the seemingly rote acts they are expected to perform in the Tabernacle.
In some way, I think seeing those people in Lord & Taylor who had come from their Ash Wednesday ritual had a similar ripple effect. Watching ordinary people who are just going about their business and shopping like anyone else with ashes on their foreheads encouraged and inspired me to reflect on my “call” — my relationship with God and others, and particularly my ritual practice. And it strengthened the notion that no matter where I am in the world, there will be individuals around me–Jewish, Christian or otherwise–who bolster my religious consciousness and practice.
I am grateful to those two women in Lord & Taylor for publicly demonstrating their commitment to their faith and spiritual/ethical betterment. I bless us all that we have the opportunity to encounter people who encourage us to “heed the call.”