Ritual allows us to express abstract concepts through concrete acts. Ritual can play just as important a role today as it did in the time of the Temple. Our ancestors figured out ways to use ritual to bring us into alignment with God and our own spirituality.
The Ebla tablets are a collection of clay tablets, which describe life and customs in ancient Syria. Two of the Ebla tablets, written between about 2500 and 2250 BCE, describe rituals to prepare a woman to marry the king of Ebla. What is interesting here is that the ritual described in the Elba tablets parallels those of the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:7–22:
“Aaron is to present the bull for his sin offering and make atonement for himself and his household. Then he shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
After Aaron casts lots for the two goats, one for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat, he shall present the goat chosen by lot for the LORD and sacrifice it as a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to make purification by sending it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.”
If we look at the tablets of Ebla we see a ceremony that is so similar to the one described in Leviticus it simply cannot be a coincidence. The tablets describe that to prepare for her wedding to the king, the woman hung the necklace of her old life around the neck of a goat and drove it into the hills of Alini, “Where it may stay forever.” The book of Leviticus, written more than 1000 year later, takes this older ritual and makes it about an opportunity for the Israelite people to repent for their sins and forget about their old life, just as the new queen did for her marriage ritual. These rituals provide a way to take an abstract concept like personal narrative, and gives a physical expression for letting go of the bad.
I would like to suggest that Judaism does not in fact prescribe behavior. Rather Judaism tries to have the individual look at what they do and how they interact with the world from a different, more nuanced perspective. Judaism takes what people already do and gives us a chance to communicate that which is difficult to articulate. These rituals have the potential to enrich our every encounter in this world.
What we see with the Elba tablets and the book of Leviticus is the important role ritual can play in our lives. The ancient Israelites took a more ancient custom set aside for the aristocracy and gave it a new twist by making it something all the people could do. Instead of discarding one’s old life, the way the bride of the king would, they take this ritual and make it an opportunity for soul cleansing. These symbolic acts allow people to let the past go “into the wilderness” in a way that mere words would not suffice.