When you eat with at least two other men, it is proper to bench on a cup of wine. The cup should be rinsed out, and washed on the outside as well. The cup should be full but not in danger of spilling. Someone else should fill it and hand it to the leader of the meal with both hands. You should receive it in both hands, and then transfer it to your right hand. The right hand should then hold it for the remainder of benching, the left hand should not aid the right hand while holding it. Upon completion of benching, the blessing should be made and then one should drink the cup of wine. It is proper to save some of the wine for one's wife, even if she wasn't eating/benching with you. [Ben Ish Hai - parashath Shelach L'cha]It's so easy to see such a thoroughly proscribed ritual and think it is ridiculous or that it bears no relation to the modern day society in which we live. Regardless of the deep Kabbalistic meditations that are the basis for this action, many people would look at this ritual as outdated. It's easy in our post-modern mentality to say that, yes the mystical intentions are perhaps of value, but the proscribed actions are pedantic, outmoded, no longer in order. (We'll ignore for a minute that such thought is indifferentiable in any significant way from the cardiac Jew syndrome. eg. I'm a Jew in my heart.)
I think of myself as ascribing great importance to the Torah and the Halachah along with it. It is the basic foundation upon which all my other value judgements are made. It is the primary lens through which I see the world. Yet, when I read a description of ritual such as the one above, I, being a good sefaradi, file it away as the "theoretical ideal," but not necesarily the practicable version of Judaism which defines my daily life.
Today at lunch I was thinking about it. Why? Why can I take the halachah of what berachah to say when so seriously and spontaneously dismiss the ritualistic behavior brought right alongside it?
The answer is that I have it all wrong.
Look at all of the ritual in the Beit HaMikdash. (The best place to look is in the Rambam where all of the rituals are described in great detail. Hilchot Beit HaBechirah (english translation) (partial link)) Clearly, it isn't there for HaShem's sake. He doesn't need to eat, doesn't need our offerings. Yet, there is great intricacy in all of the performance of each of the offerings in the Temple. Why? Each offering involves two parties: The one who brings the offering, and God who receives the offering. If the offering isn't for HaShem's sake, then it's clearly there for ours. We get something out of offerings we bring to HaShem. All of that ritual is there for us.
[As an aside, according to the opinion that says animal offerings will not be practiced in the Third Temple our point is even more integral: If at one point animal offerings were relevant to us, we brought them. At another point in our history, when animal offerings may no longer be relevant (again to us) we no longer need to bring them. God doesn't change, we do. But, to return to our point, there is no opinion that there will not be a Third Temple, likewise there exists no opinion that ritual worship will not be part of the Third Temple. The ritual is still there (the grain offerings will still be brought) which means the ritual is still important to us, not only now, but even in that (hopefully near) future.]
Ritual is vitally crucial to our spiritual growth. It's pretty simple to understand when you think about it. Imagine you buy your wife a beautiful bouquet of flowers, but when you walk in the door you throw the bouquet on the table, head for the couch and switch on the lakers game. Contrast that with getting home before her, turning off the lights, lighting some candles, and leaving the flowers, bound in a nice ribbon, to be discovered with an envelope containing a short letter you wrote just for her. In short, its all in the delivery.
The flowers are just some flowers, they might have cost some money, but in the scheme of things that money is fairly insignificant. The few minutes it took to set the mood are also infinitesimal, but it sent a very different message. The planning and the thought invested in the act made every minute detail of the execution that much more meaningful. The ribbon, the few dollars on the flowers, the candles, the paper, the time, it's all transient, it all has little economic value, but suddenly it has been invested with something else, something that's harder to define, but something that touches on the infinite. The card or the ribbon might be saved for years and whenever it pops up, it brings back all the feelings evoked by that moment when she first discovered the flowers.
It isn't only special because you showed your wife that you love her. She knows you do. But, you had to consciously reawaken those feelings of love in order to show it. You reminded yourself how much you love her, and then you shared those feelings with her. That's what she appreciates most.
The ritual of our mitzwoth are the beauty, the hidur. The mitzwoth themselves require a particular outcome, an action. We're required to cause an effect in the physical world. But the ritual with which we surround that action, that's timeless, infinite. It enriches our lives. It makes the act more important for us. It brings us closer to HaShem by reminding us how central He is in our lives.
HaShem always loves us, is always giving to us, but we can only receive when we are open to HaShem. It's the ritual that awakens us to how we feel, that allows us to make room for HaShem in our lives.