My mundane—but predictable—behaviors reflect something essential about all ritual acts. They contain the chaos and shine a light on what is meaningful or poignant within.
We have had six snow days in Philadelphia. By snow days, I don’t mean “days where there is snow.” I mean days when school and work are closed because snow is falling faster than an inch an hour or ice is literally falling from the sky. This weather has provided numerous opportunities for ritual in my neighborhood—religious, secular, serious and lighthearted.
The ritual activity begins with obsessive checking of the weather. Smart phones, computer screens and radios are all tools for this important task. When the forecast looks threatening, people flock to the grocery stores to stock up. It seems to be a primal urge, this need to buy bread, milk and eggs even if your fridge and pantry are already bursting at the seams. If you have children at home, they may engage in some weather related rituals of their own. When the weather calls for snow, my son places a spoon under his pillow and wears his pajamas inside out. Evidence suggests this occasionally results in a snow day. More importantly, not doing so almost certainly yields another day at school.
But I should not pass judgment. I have rituals of my own. If we are snowed in I wake up early to make coffee cake as a treat for the kids. Every snow day, we have dinner with the same group of friends and play the same games of monopoly and charades. For me—and I think for many of us—there is something comforting about these familiar acts. For all their pleasure, snow days are unsettling. They are unpredictable events that take us out of our ordinary routines. The disruption is benign, but the agitation is real. My snow day rituals bring a sense of organization and stability back into my life. My mundane—but predictable—behaviors reflect something essential about all ritual acts. They contain the chaos and shine a light on what is meaningful or poignant within. How lovely to fight off the cold and dark with warmth and pleasure of warm food and good friends.
After the most recent storm, my neighbors recited the gomel blessing. This is the prayer that we recite upon overcoming adversity—traditionally after recovering from an illness or surviving a journey across the sea. My neighbors had a tree branch crash through their kitchen skylight, located just above the table they had vacated just minutes before. In the midst of material damage, they were grateful life and limb were spared. The next Shabbat morning, they were called to the Torah and bencshed gomel with gratitude for the goodness that infuses their lives. The stakes were higher than spoons under a pillow and coffee cake in the oven. But the same essence was there: order, meaning and heightened awareness of the fragility and beauty of life.