I slept late on Monday and awoke to see a thick column of smoke coming from the yard next door. A few men stood around, tossing things into the smoking pile.
My first thought was, "How is it possible that people burn trash outdoors, creating a stink and polluting the air, in such a nice neighborhood? And isn't it against the law?" Well...in a few seconds it dawned on me that not only was it not against the law, it is part of The Law. These families were burning their hametz before Passover. As I watched, others showed up and added their leftover breads to be incinerated before the holiday started. This fire, apparently, was a private one, but the city also organizes larger hametz burning events, partly to control the process, so there aren't fires in every yard and block (apparently people used to burn bread, plastic sleeve and all, creating a real health hazard). I'm told that the smoke generated from Lag B'Omer bonfires creates a thick grey paste over Jerusalem and can be spotted from satellites.
Seeing Jewish rituals in action has made me acutely aware of how I've distanced myself from it at home, resisting it on a fairly deep level. At my younger nephew's circumcision, I found the procedure somewhat barbaric and extremely tribal. But I must yearn for ritual and expression of and to the sacred, because it is precisely these kinds of community ceremonies that I'm drawn to see when I travel to other countries.
These ancient rituals have power, which is why people keep performing them; NOT doing them also sends a strong message. I wonder if, or when, I'll be able to leap over the fence of my ambivalence and be able to wholeheartedly join my tribe, rather than remaining a curious yet aloof observer.