Tzav: Cost-Benefit Ritual

This week’s Torah portion, Tsav, is one of several describing our ancient animal sacrificial rites.  These are certainly not rituals that most of us would care to witness, nor even contemplate.  In fact, just reading the Torah text can prompt a salad for dinner! But I suspect that in Temple times, when most people were likely personally familiar with slaughtering, they found the ceremonies spiritually meaningful. “Free-will” and “thanksgiving” offerings were probably especially so as means of ritualized emotional expression.

In principle, our synagogue prayer services and home observances, such as lighting candles and saying/singing Birkat Hamazon after meals, are the replacement rituals by which we express gratitude for life, health, and many other blessings.  For some, these may be as meaningful as I imagine sacrifices were in their time.  For most of us, though, I doubt it.  Nor should this be surprising.  Offering a sacrifice required an outlay in time, economic value, physical effort, and perhaps emotional attachment to an animal “family member.”  In comparison, what are we actually giving up when we say a quick prayer or blessing? How much effort goes into it?  What benefit can we expect from such little … sacrifice?  

As Passover approaches, many Jews who otherwise seldom engage in religious ritual will search their homes for, and remove, bread products and even hidden crumbs and liquids with trace portions of "forbidden" ingredients.  On Monday (and, for many, also Tuesday) night, they will host or attend an elaborate and lengthy seder.  They’ll buy expensive (and not very tasty) bread substitutes, forsake restaurant meals, delay vacations, eat dry matzoh for an entire week, and “suffer” the intestinal result. 

Why is Passover so widely observed even among Jews who consider themselves “cultural” and not “religious?”  There are many reasons, but I believe that one is the spiritual “return on investment” from the unusual effort.  It seems that a special type of “cost-benefit” process is in operation: the greater the cost/investment in ritual, the greater the spiritual benefit/return.  

If so, it suggests one answer to many Jews’ search for “greater spirituality” – adopting more Jewish ritual, regardless of how “religious” one is.  Times have certainly changed in 2,000 years, but human nature has not.  Even “secular” and “cultural” Jews need psychologically proven, socially-acceptable means of emotional expression.  Judaism provides great opportunities for this through ritual, especially cultivation of the on-going gratitude so necessary for happiness and so conducive to mental health. Even modest additional ritual effort, voluntarily undertaken, can bring highly gratifying returns.   

Perhaps it wouldn’t be “Jewish” for me to say “Don’t worry; be happy!”  Instead, I’ll say “Add Jewish ritual to our life and you'll be happier!"  Try it and see! 

Shabbat shalom.


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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb