What I learned from a wrong turn on the road to the perfect ritual.
My husband and I are both rabbis, so there is a lot of ritual around our house. But we also have three children, who have taught us that too much ritual is just that—too much.
When we use it right, ritual can awe three teenagers into reverential silence. But when David and I go over the top—when we are being egotistical or trying to mask our discomfort—the kids resort to eye rolling or spot-on humor to let us know we have missed the mark.
All this was on my mind as we drove our oldest child to begin college last week. At her request, all five of us were along for the trip, packed into the mini-van with all the usual effects. I wondered how to say goodbye to Eliana; how could we mark the moment in a way that felt right? Could we find the right balance between gravitas and joy? Could we do it in a way that felt satisfying to David and me but not mortifying to her?
I came up with what I thought was an excellent plan. When it was time to leave, all five of us would recite the shehecheyanu, thanking God for bringing us to this moment. Then David and I would bless Eliana as we do every Friday night, invoking our matriarchs and asking that God protect her and bring her peace. It was short, simple and elegant. It required no equipment or preparation and was unlikely to cause my daughter discomfort. In fact, I was pretty sure it would please her and intensify her feelings of pride and independence. I was feeling pretty pleased myself.
I would like to be able to report to you how beautifully it all went, but I can’t. We had a lovely day; the move was easy and the roommates were great. Eliana was excited and we were all happy for her—and grateful to be there launching her on this important passage. We hugged, there were a few tears, and we walked out the door exclaiming how amazing it was and discussing our varied emotions. We wondered where we should eat.
An hour later, I remembered about the ritual I had planned.
Why am I sharing this? Sure, I am hoping that someone will try this ritual when they take their child to school—and let me know how it goes. But more important, I want to remind all of us that it is okay when rituals don’t do what we’d hoped, or get caught in a web of confused or unarticulated emotions. That can happen when we innovate. It is simply part of the process.
As for me, I am still digging to see what more I can learn from this, so that I will be ready when our next child heads off to school.