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Writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel, would tell this story when he spoke before communities of people.
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayers.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
One can hope that over time, the story continued to be told, and it continued to be sufficient. My experience of passing on stories is that they tend to get lost, details get missed, what was once lively and vibrant grows dim between the time it happened to when the story has been told for the 100th time by someone who wasn’t even born yet. This isn’t true for all cultures and communities, just my experience. The way to light the fire gets lost. The words of the prayer get told out of order, lines get dropped until the words have dissipated into other stories. The place gets overwhelmed with weeds, the tree limbs fall and hide the path you once knew well, the spot can’t be discovered.
And maybe the first Rabbi didn’t explain it well. And maybe one of the Rabbis who followed was distracted that day. Maybe they focused on something else that seemed even more important for the caring of their community. We don’t know why the place, the fire, the prayers were lost; but it seems that the story mattered.
There are a hundred things that to say about the prophet Elijah: about his giant ego, certainty about God, speaking truth to the powerful, and that after he wins this battle he takes this to their most extreme ending and priest of Ba’al are all murdered. Which, wild, and upsets the king and queen, and Elijah seems to recognize it was probably a mistake.
Elijah becomes overwhelmed in his fervor for the worship, the covenant, the commitment of God, and to the community’s covenant with God. Their covenant was who they were, the center of their meanings and purpose, it was supposed to be everything.
And they had forgotten that.
It isn’t that they didn’t continue to, walk into the woods as it were, but they were distracted by so many other things, too.
When Ahab married Jezebel, it wasn’t that she was evil as the stories work so hard to convince us she was, it was that the Israelites were rural folk, and she came from the big city, with cosmopolitan ideas, modern technologies, and an expansive view of worship that included all the gods. In her world you could worship Ba’al and Ashera and Egypt’s Ra and Isis and the Cannanite Enki, the rules were different for the Israelites who were told that their God is a jealous God.
Instead of worshiping only the God of their ancestors, they hopped between the gods, seeking the one that would serve them most. They built altars to the gods of the world that they met in the world around us, and perhaps their worship of their God, who lead them to freedom, liberated them, became less and less. Perhaps the story became just a story and no longer stirred their hearts. Perhaps the story was not told.
We don’t really live with the risk of meeting other gods in the world around us. We live in a multi-religious world but it’s not often that we see people hop between divinities. No… we have things that call us to commit, to focus our attention, energies, resources, set our values. Our gods of military that believes and celebrates violence as the only answer in problems of public policy and neighborhood disputes. Our gods of hyper-capitalistic culture convinces us we need more, that our value is based on what we have, earn, produce. Our gods of me, the individual, that it doesn’t matter what happens to others as long as I get mine. Our gods of technology and advancement, the next, the best, and the cost–be it financial or human, animal or earth–it doesn’t matter.
We build altars or shrines to our successes, on what these gods of reckless violence, unquestioned capitalism, individualism and isolation, and advancement have given us, made us, altars to the distractions, the privilege, the “me”. Me too.
When it became Elijah’s turn to call upon the God of his ancestors to come in fire, the first thing that he did was call the people close. Come closer, be close to what is about to happen. Don’t miss it.
He rebuilt the altar that had been allowed to lay in ruins while the people sought after the gods that were convenient, that didn’t ask anything of them, that let them live as if they were not part of this community. He rebuilt the altar to the God of their ancestors and their liberation. There was a ritual to it. I wonder if he told a story, their story, while he realigned the rocks. I wonder if he whispered the names of their ancestors, of creation, of liberation. He placed stones for each of the 12 tribes, each part of their community, even as they are not one nation they would be brought together in this altar, in this moment of worship.
Elijah told their story in the building of the altar and the setting of the stones. He told their story in the naming of their ancestors, in the remembrance of their past, in the promises of their future.
I think we tend away from ritual, these repeated patterns. We worry that the ritual might lose its meaning, or that we’ve advanced as a society past ritual. But they are how we tell our stories. They are how we remember who we are. Rituals remind us who and whose we are. Rituals remind us that our value and worthiness is not in what we have or produce. That our values are not in violence or violation of others. That who we are is rooted in the Creator of all things and calls us beloved.
But it’s our choice is we’re going to build our lives around the altars of the world’s gods or the one who brings libation, belonging, community, who values compassion, justice, and love.
It’s our rituals that remind us, that call us back, that root us in our past and give us hope for the future. We practice them on our best days so that on the days that are hard, on the days that we don’t believe, we have something to fall back on, we have a community that lifts us up, we have a practice that calls us back.
And so we gather at this table in rituals that call us to community, to each other, to the Divine, to our ancestors and our generations to come. We gather in memory every year to remember, for rituals of ritual and naming. We are telling our stories in our rituals, reminding ourselves of who we are, so that when we go into the world and it calls to other gods, other temptations, other ways of living in the world that are not part of love, we build again the altar to the creator of the universe and let God call us love.