We tend to think of rituals in the context of religious observance, but they have a role in all areas of our life. What is the power and purpose of rituals outside of religion, and how does this enhance meaning and fulfillment?
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer case study, still in progress, on what we learn from Passover about the power and purpose of rituals.
The Power and Purpose of Rituals
Passover is my favorite holiday, perhaps because it involves two of my favorite activities: rituals and questions.
An obvious question is: what is the purpose of the rituals we perform at the Seder?
The most common explanation for the Seder rituals is that they are designed to provoke questions from the children. The theory is that questions “open the door” for us to tell them the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt; the questions engage them in the process of learning about this event .
Is that all there is?
I’ve accepted this answer since I made my first matzah cover, circa 1980.
And while my nursery school matzah cover is still serving its intended purpose, thanks to my mom’s diligent preservation efforts (thanks, mom!), I’m not so sure about the answer to my question.
Saying that we do all of these strange rituals just to provoke questions from the children is an easy answer. But it is incomplete. We learn that every word in the Torah has a specific meaning, and every action is commanded for a reason. I don’t buy into the belief that we do certain rituals — like dipping parsley in salt water — just to provoke questions from the children. It makes no sense.
We also learn that we are required to perform the rituals even without precipitating questions, or the children themselves. If the rituals are not conditioned on the presence of children or their questions, they must serve another purpose. What is that purpose?
The Purpose of Rituals at the Passover Seder
I would like to offer my take on the purpose of the rituals.
The rituals we perform at the Seder are designed to create a full-immersion experience of the journey from slavery to freedom. Through our participation in this experience — through the rituals — we create emotional connection, memory and knowledge of the Exodus.
Below, I’ll explain the basics of this theory.
Experience is The Highest Form of Learning
In our culture, we put a lot of stock in cognitive intelligence. We prize the learning that we do through reading books and taking classes, whether in formal school or through online courses. But these activities by themselves don’t impart true knowledge or wisdom. We are exposed to so much information that we can’t possibly retain all of it.
Consider your own path of learning. When we read or hear a story, it’s easy to forget. How much of what you learned in school do you actually remember? How much do you remember from a conversation you had last week, or from the most recent book you read or from the most recent course you took?
The most effective form of learning is experiential. Experiential learning turns information and facts into emotional memories and embodied knowledge.
My yoga teacher makes the point this way:
Action produces knowledge, not the other way around.
An experience engages all of our senses. Through experience, we connect with our environment and other people. The various sensory touch points create anchors to which the memories of that experience can cling.
When we participate in an experience that involves our physical body and all of our senses, we remember more of it, and we remember it with more clarity and accuracy. The memory is not just cognitive; it lives in our entire body and nervous system.
These types of embodied memories are difficult to erase. They stick with us. They become a part of us.
The more we put our physical body and emotions into an experience, the more it shapes our identity: our sense of who we are and how we fit into the larger context of the world.
Experiential learning creates embodied knowledge and memory, and the foundation of identity.
Cognitive Understanding vs Experiential Knowledge: It’s in the Feels
This distinction between cognitive understanding and experiential knowledge lies at the heart of the purpose of the Seder’s rituals.
On the surface level, the core mandate of Passover is to tell the story of the Exodus. But a deeper dive teaches us that simply “telling the story” isn’t enough; it only engages the mind. A story heard is a story easily forgotten.
The most important line in the Haggadah informs us that in every generation each of us must see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had come out of Egypt. This is not simply a prompt to imagine what it might have been like, but rather a mandate to know and feel the emotion of the experience.
True knowledge is embodied: physically and emotionally. To know is to feel. To feel is to know. They are inseparable.
The Foundation of Remembering
The Exodus was a foundational event in the creation of the Jewish people; we are commanded to remember it every day. To remember something, we must have known it first. We must have created a memory of the thing we want to remember.
The purpose of the Seder is not merely to transmit information, but to instill knowledge and create memory. Only then can we remember.
Without an emotional connection, information is just data. It’s what emerges on the screen at the other end of a Google search.
We evoke emotion through creating and participating in an immersive experience.
This is the power and purpose of rituals.
Rituals Create Experience
The Seder rituals create this experience. They enable us to experience the journey from slavery to freedom not just in our minds, but with all of our senses. At the Seder we taste the bitter herbs and the salty water. We taste the dryness of the matzah, the bread of oppression. We also taste the sweetness of the wine and the charoset.
As we sit at the table and read about how our ancestors performed these rituals, the scents of the main course waft in from the kitchen and we feel the pangs of hunger in our bellies. As we complete the story, we rejoice in prayer and praise of God, and we hear the joyous melodies of our songs.
These rituals — physical, tangible actions done with intention and purpose — transport us to another time and place. They carry us on a journey from slavery to freedom. The rituals instill within us experiential knowledge and deep understanding. They evoke emotions that form the basis of empathy. They plant the seeds of memory and identity.
This is why we perform the rituals even if there are no children around.
The questions help us learn. Through rituals, we integrate what we learn. Through ritual, we instill knowledge.
The Role of Ritual in Secular Life
Rituals need not be associated with religious observance. The purpose and power of ritual at the Seder applies to life outside the Seder too.
Whether within or outside the confines of religious observance and experience, rituals create tangible experiences that instill identity, create memory and embed understanding. Through ritual, we transform information and ideas into knowledge.
Far more than anything we might read in a book or learn in a classroom, rituals shape our identity by transforming conceptual values into tangible actions.
Rituals have the power to build physical, emotional and spiritual strength that keep us grounded amidst chaos and uncertainty. They can be the vehicles through which we connect more deeply to purpose and mission. They can be a source of solace and strength. Rituals can elevate the mundane actions of daily life and provide structure and continuity amidst change.
Rituals done in community have their own source of power. They become a source of communal witnessing that turns a collection of individuals into a cohesive community, creating unbreakable bonds forged through a shared experience.
This is the power and purpose of rituals.
This is an excerpt from larger, working project in which I explore the role of rituals in enhancing productivity, meaning and fulfillment in our lives. Members of my community receive insider access to updates, sections not published publicly, behind the scenes insights, and other special goodies. They also get VIP access and special discounts for The Ritual Revolution, my upcoming program on designing productivity rituals. Wanna join the club? Membership is free and we’d love to have you! Just sign up!