Rituals as Containers: A Reflection on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, and our Upcoming Film Screening of A Father’s Kaddish

March 17, 2023

As we conclude the book of Exodus with this week’s double parashah, Vayakhel-Pekudei, we find the Israelites constructing the Mishkan, the tabernacle, according to precise instructions given by God to Moses. The Israelites are still in their infancy as a free people, making their way through a vast and unmarked desert wilderness, and it is difficult for them to trust that God is with them if they have no physical reminder of that presence. Fascinatingly, the physical object that they are now to build is truly the antithesis of the solid golden idol they fashioned in last week’s parashah: It is made of many different materials, contributed by individual Israelites. It is a portable sanctuary – a place that can be set up wherever they encamp, and has space within it. Inside of it is room for the Ark of the Covenant which will house the stone tablets Moses received at Mount Sinai, symbolizing the newly established relationship between God and the Jewish people, and the Holy of Holies into which the High Priests, Aaron and his descendants, will enter for ritual purposes. The Israelites are to encamp around it throughout their wilderness journey. It will be at the center of their community, and as such, will serve to center them in the midst of this vast wilderness. This structure will serve as something of a container for the uncontainable – the unbounded presence of the divine. When faced with the overwhelming nature of Mystery (which can be one of the ways we refer to God), it is our human nature to need to find ways to ground ourselves, to contain what we know is uncontainable. In doing so, we can engage with it with our full presence. 

One of the greatest mysteries we face as human beings is death, and in particular the death of our beloved ones. When my father died 23 years ago, I wrote a poem in which I called this starkness,  “the unfathomable absence of a beloved presence.”  Over millennia, our people has created deep and rich traditions to enable us to move through and engage with such shocking, disorienting loss with tools to ground us, to center us. I have often thought of such rituals (and so many other rituals, really) as “containers for the uncontainable.” We have inherited a sacred legacy of guideposts — markers in time for our journey of mourning, and our tradition recognizes that the journey is not linear, and that it is endless. The loss of a beloved one is not something we “get over,” but rather, something we live with, something we grow around; something that travels with us. The Mourner’s Kaddish is one of these rituals, rooting us in words that we may not understand literally (they are in Aramaic, after all), but that can take on the character of an incantation, and when said in community, as is required for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish, one is supported and held by the ancient words, and by the presence of others. 

This Wednesday evening, we will present a screening of a stunning, award-winning documentary short film called A Father’s Kaddish, created by local filmmaker Jen Kaplan. In this film, we meet local potter Steven Branfman, who created his own personal ritual for moving through the initial year of mourning for his son. As it happens, the containing ritual that Steven developed involved the creation of containers! Beginning a week after his son’s death, Steven took on a daily ritual of creating a chawan, a Japanese ceramic tea bowl, every day for a year. I hope that all who are able, will join us for a screening of this beautiful film, and a discussion with Jen Kaplan and Steven Branfman following the film. The film will begin at 7 pm, and a wine and cheese reception will begin at 6:30.

What a blessing to be the inheritors of a tradition which offers us rituals for facing the greatest of life’s mysteries, to help us move through the vast wilderness in which we find ourselves following the death of a loved one. What a blessing to be the inheritors of so many rituals which can center us and which we can gather around in community, reminding us that we are inextricably linked to one another, and to our people throughout the generations that have preceded and will come after us.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman