Yom Kippur Morning 5774
September 14, 2013
“Through thirty and more centuries, he has wandered about on earth,
He has seen far-flung empires crack and crumble,
and mighty peoples dwindle to naught...
With their kings and priests, their tyrants and princelings.
They have marched over him in vainglorious pride –
only to fall and die by the roadside.
But he, the Jew, still lives on…”
These words by Rabbi Lewis Browne, from his 1926 book, Stranger than Fiction: A Short History of the Jews, are the opening words on the website of Two Cats Productions, producers of the documentary, “The Jewish People: A Story of Survival.
I recently had the opportunity to watch this film on our local PBS station. Narrated by Martha Teichner, senior correspondent for CBS News, the one-hour documentary seeks to explain why, in Rabbi Browne’s words, “They have marched over him in vainglorious pride – only to fall and die by the roadside. But he, the Jew, still lives on…”
The film begins with the following narration:
The Jewish people, their journey is one of history’s most improbable survivals. Beginning as just a tribe of desert nomads in the near east some 40 centuries ago, they developed a new religion based on a relationship and covenant with one God. For millennia they have wandered the world almost never at home, temporary inhabitants of foreign lands. Their story has included enslavement in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, exile from their land, destruction of their capital city, and centuries of anti-Semitism. Indeed, they could be gone, but they’re still here.
The film traces back the origins of our religion to Abraham, citing how he developed a relationship with a single God. The first source we have is the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), which was, as presented by the film, a book written as a document of faith. Dr. Christine Hayes, professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and chairperson of its Department of Religious Studies, focuses on Talmudic-Midrashic studies and Classical Judaica. She is also a specialist in the History and Literature of Judaism in Late Antiquity. She notes that
The Torah is one crystallization of oral traditions that had become sacred to the community… Law for the ancient Israelites included every imaginable aspect of life from the way you sowed your crops in the field to how you distributed charity to marriage relations, personal status laws, everything that we think of as civil and criminal and penal law, but in addition, moral law and religious law. There wasn’t an area of life that was outside of God’s interest and concern…
The Torah, because it is such an anthology of so many different kinds of materials, became a resource then for Jews in later times. When they needed to comprehend what was happening in their own experience, they could find any number of prior reflections on the meaning of suffering, the meaning of history…
The documentary explains that the Temple in Jerusalem became the center of life for the Israelites and survived for some 400 years until the early sixth century (B.C.E.) with the arrival of the armies of Babylon… The Babylonians destroyed the Temple.
Dr. William G. Dever, an archeologist and professor, specializing in the history of Israel and the Near East in Biblical times, notes in the documentary: “The Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem is destroyed, the Israelite and Judean peoples are exiled…. As an archeologist, as far as I’m concerned, that should have been the end of the story, but [instead] it was the beginning.”
Shortly following the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple was built. In 70 C.E. it too was destroyed, this time by the Romans. In other circumstances, the destruction of the main focal point of a religion would have killed the religion, too. But not with the Jews! Civilizations have come and gone, and yet here we are thousands of years after our religion was founded, still surviving, still moving forward!
With the destruction of the Temples, our practices, as dictated in the Torah, such as how to observe festivals and holy days, which included bringing offerings and sacrifices to the Temple, could no longer take place. For example, if we were observing this Yom Kippur day back in Temple times we would be bringing fire offerings to the Temple as it notes in Leviticus: “‘Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; you shall do no work throughout that day.’” [Lev. 23:27-28]
Furthermore, with the destruction of the First Temple, the diaspora began. The Jews now lived outside of Jerusalem, making it difficult, if not impossible, to make the regular journeys to Jerusalem to make the offerings and sacrifices. So even before the Second Temple was destroyed, our ancestors had begun to change our mode of worship from a sacrifice-based one to a prayer-based one. So while we no longer bring fire offerings to the Temple on Yom Kippur, we still practice self-denial in the form of fasting and we still bring ourselves and our offerings – in our case, offerings to support the Tzedakah Committee’s food and toiletries drive – to our temple.
Jodi Magness, also an archeologist and professor, notes that:
The reason that Judaism was able to survive as a religion, survive the destruction of the Second Temple, and the fact that it’s not rebuilt soon after the destruction, what makes Judaism different from other ancient religions is that Judaism not only included the component of a sacrificial cult in a temple building, but also a set of laws…. So really it was the observance of the laws of the Torah, which enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple. [emphasis added]
So the end of the building, the end of the land (Eretz Yisraeil), didn’t have to be the end of the tradition. In fact, it could be argued that the diaspora gave birth to the concept of Am Yisraeil, the people of Israel, the community of Israel.
Becoming Am Yisraeil, a group of people following the same teachings and traditions, allowed us to survive the tragedies and calamities that befell our people, from the destructions of the Temples to the Crusades to the Holocaust. We should have disappeared and yet our ancestors adapted to new situations and new lands, developing new ways of observing our religion. We survived because we continued to learn from our sacred texts…we learned from our history…we learned from our stories.
Which brings us to today and to our community and our congregation. During these ten days, we have been brought together by Judaism – our own religion or that of our partner or of our children. We have come here these past ten days to be part of a larger group, to be part of a community.
We have survived as a people because of our history, because we study the stories of our people, stories we tell over and over, through lifetimes, through generations. We continue to do that today, to tell the stories, to live our lives guided by our traditions. We come together for life cycle events – whether they be celebrations or sadnesses. We come together for holy days and festivals. We come together to learn, to study the beauty that is Judaism. We face challenges together; we become stronger together. This is Judaism and this is Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Congregation Gates of Righteousness.
And that’s why we have gathered here over these past Ten Days of Repentance. As I noted on Rosh HaShanah evening, we have come home during these High Holy Days. We have come here to learn, to pray, and to join together as a loving family. This coming together is why we have survived these many years and this is why we will continue to not only survive, but flourish.
Welcome home! Let’s not wait another year to see each other again.
G’mar chatimah tovah!
May you be sealed for a good year!