My situation had no ritual, and that nearly sent me into despair.
As a rabbi, I lead rituals to help people deal with change and loss. Joyful yet sometimes stressful occasions like weddings, brit ceremonies, b’nei mitzvah. Sad passages like funerals, shivah and even divorce. They are all laden with rituals that help ease us through the passages of life. But not every life passage has a set ritual.
Jews throughout the ages have used the language and vessels of tradition to create our own folk rituals, and continue to do so today. As a rabbi, I have led creative new rituals for weaning a child, going off to college, moving to a new city, and menopause, among other things.
But when a drastic change came to my own life, I felt a dearth of ritual. It happened after thirty years of raising a family, as my husband and I were happily embarking on the empty nest. One ordinary and beautiful summer evening, my husband suffered a hemorrhagic stroke affecting the right side of his body. In one moment our lives were changed forever. Such an event affects not only the patient, but his partner and entire family. Months of therapy did wonders but my beloved was left with some enduring disabilities, and moreover, a dramatic change of outlook that meant we were negotiating a whole new marriage and very different roles. There was grief, and there was sorrow, too, over the sudden loss of what our life “should have been like” at this phase. Nearly three years later, the changes really began to sink in.
After much inner work and counseling, I devised my own ritual of letting go of the past and of my previous expectations. Since I have been so engaged with the symbolism in this Gateway of Flowing Water, and love the creek that flows near my home, I decided to base my personal ritual on the Tashlich ceremony.
I didn’t want to pollute the creek, so I imagined taking a fragrant garden rose (something my husband has loved growing) and casting the petals into the creek as it flowed downstream. But I forgot to bring the rose! So I picked one native pink rose with five petals and a small bunch of native white roses in the park. I also realized that pulling them apart did not feel right. Instead as I stood on the bridge gazing downstream, I dedicated each of four petals of the pink rose to something in our relationship that it was time to let go of.
When I got to the last petal, I dedicated it to letting go of myself as I was prior to my husband’s stroke, realizing that I am now a new person who has experienced more pain but also developed more spiritual and emotional depth and strength.
I had finally accepted that while things can and hopefully will improve, they are not ever going back to “the way they were,” and wishing that they could was robbing me of my energy to engage with life as it is.
Finally, with a dramatic swing, I cast the roses over the bridge railing and into the stream below, allowing them to flow away with the past. I watched them flow gently downstream, imagining the flow of life that cannot be stopped. There was a deep sense of release and letting go.
Then I turned, went to the other side of the bridge, and looked upstream.
As I gazed at the sun-dappled creek flowing toward me, I envisioned it as the future flowing my way. I prayed and welcomed what the future may bring: wonderful new experiences, new friends I haven’t met yet, new family members who haven’t even been born yet! The future can and will also bring new difficulties and challenges and I prayed to greet these, too, with presence, holiness, and life-affirmation.
As I prayed, the wind began to stir on the water and in the trees and I felt it as the ruach, the spirit of change.
Then I stopped to look at where I stood. I sensed the bridge as the present moment itself, that ungraspable now between past and future. I felt light and alive in the moment, with a renewed sense of hope.
As I walked home through the park, I said more blessings and prayers including the angel blessing of protection that we say at bedtime, and Ana Bechoach. I felt surrounded by the Shechinah, God’s presence manifest in the natural world about it.
For months I had been dealing with grief and sadness, but after this ritual, I felt a new surge of energy and even joy. My situation was seemingly no different, but letting go of my need for things to be a certain way freed me to more fully embrace my and our life as it is. Although a ritual may seem to have no practical effect, it can be very healing in the emotional and spiritual worlds.
When ritual is linked to a deep archetype in Nature and to the language of faith and tradition, it can be all the more powerful and transformative.
–Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Consider and Comment: Have you created a personal ritual, or would you like to? What was its effect on your outlook? Did your ritual draw on tradition or symbols from nature?
Featured Image: Five Mile bridge at Bidwell Park, Chico, California, JHD