Parashat Vayikra: Momentous Decisions
March 11, 2011
There have been moments in Jewish history that defined the course of Judaism for centuries to come. One of those epic decisions occurred almost a thousand years ago when the Roman legions under the General and soon to be elected Emperor Vespasian entered Jerusalem and destroyed it including the Holy Temple. Judaism was, therefore, at a crossroads for the rest of its history. How would Judaism survive when the central institution of Jewish identity and communal worship, the Temple, was obliterated from the face of the earth?
I chose this question tonight regarding the Temple and the sacrificial tradition because our Torah portion begins the book of Leviticus. It is the book that sets out the order of sacrificial rites, the purity laws, and the regimen of priestly duties that accompanies the sacrificial offerings. For us that world is long gone. No one, not even the mainstream Orthodox, actively plan to return to reinstate the Temple sacrificial cult. We have assigned this material to Talmudic study and to preserve the ideal of the Temple in our theology and more specifically in the traditional prayer books, but, Judaism has moved forward to renew itself and proved that it could do so. Because of Rabbinic innovation and political skill our forbearers were able to substitute prayer and study as the means of expiation of sin.
The lesson for tonight is not about the value of sacrifices themselves but about how Judaism adapted itself to the most serious challenge to its existence. The sages reorganized the entire faith from a system of sacrificial offerings to relying upon prayer and study. That was the genius to our survival. Furthermore, have we not been adapting to the challenges of history for two thousand years? Yet, hearing the call of the Eternal One from the desert Tabernacle or the Western Wall at the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial rites was a means to an end. It was always about the heart and soul of the people reaching out to God.
Let’s take a look back in history to the time after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. It is important to remember that synagogues were part of Jewish culture in the heartland of Palestine. There were prayers and worship services. The Jewish sages, Pharisees and rabbis taught Torah. But it was the Temple that was the center of the nation’s spiritual life. People traveled to Jerusalem for pilgrimage holidays like Passover, Purim and Shavuaot. The sacrificial system had been in place as the symbol of national identity and communal worship for a millennium and was also used by all the religions of the Middle East.
And then one day it was all over. It was not simply a political crisis. It left a void in the national spiritual identity. What would people do to continue to fulfill the sacrificial commandments that God commanded the children of Israel to perform from the beginning of our history? Quickly the rabbis negotiated with the Roman authorities to establish a center for learning and study in a small town called Yavneh. One rabbi in particular, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, becomes the leader negotiated with the Roman emperor a pathway towards a future amidst the rubble of Roman conquest in the year 70 CE.
It is an amazing story told in the Talmud that Rabban Yochanan had his disciples declare him dead and put him inside a casket to be taken out of the besieged city of Jerusalem. After his escape he made his way to the Roman general. Just after Vespasian had been informed that the Roman Senate had elected him Emperor and Yochanan ben Zakkai appeared before him. Vespasian respected Yochanan ben Zakkai. Vespasian informed him that he was about to leave his assignment to become the most powerful person in the ancient world at that time.
According to the Talmudic account,Vespasian said to Yochanan ben Zakkai, “I am now going away from here and will send someone else to take my place. You may, however, make a request of me, and I will grant it.” Rabban Yochanan said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages, the dynasty of Rabban Gamaliel.” Think about that. Suppose, as some sages at the time advocated, he had convinced Vespasian to restore Jerusalem. How would Judaism have looked or survived if the Romans restored the Temple sacrificial tradition?
But it did not. In fact some would say it was a brilliant strategic decision that enabled Yochanan and his sages to operate under the Roman radar to reestablish the rabbinic presence in the ravaged and war torn Palestine of the first century of the Common Era. It was that decision that started the process of reconstituting Judaism without sacrifices. It was that decision that propelled the idea of prayer as the only way a Jew could find atonement from their sins. That was a revolutionary decision. And when Rabban Yochanan said, “Our prayers would take the place of our sacrifices to God,” Judaism was transformed.
It is not that our sages forgot sacrifices or did not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple. They did just that. But in the meantime they instituted a new approach raising the synagogues and their local prayer customs as well as the study of the Scripture as the main opportunities for Jews to find God and to receive God’s forgiveness. We take that for granted today but with the lens of history we can realize that what is amazing about our history is the ability of the spiritual leadership to reinvent itself in the midst of this existential crisis that put the future of the people and Judaism itself at risk. At the end of the day, that momentous decision to relocate the rabbinical center of learning at Yavneh changed the face of Judaism from a sacrificial based religion to strictly one of prayer, study and communal worship.
What we may not realize is how the sacrificial tradition influenced the way communal prayer, and, therefore, our current prayerbook would be structured for two millenniums. Most of the passages that directly referred to sacrifices were excised from the Reform prayerbook but the underlying influence is still there nevertheless.
How ironic it is that all of us who would never pray for the rebuilding of the Temple still aspire to stand at the Western Wall of that Temple. It is not about the sacrifices themselves. We stand at the Wall for our history. We hear an inner voice that calls from those stones. It is that calling that is the magic of the Western Wall. Similarly the first word of the Torah portion in Leviticus is, “And God called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
Rabbi Eleazar said Prayer is more efficacious than sacrificial offerings. He also said, “Ever since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been closed. But though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed. ( Talmud: B BErachot 32b)
One more text from the Midrash: We read from the Song of Songs (5:2) The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the Universe, I am numb as though asleep, for lack of the Temple, “nevertheless my heart wakes in house of payer and houses of study.”
We have learned that God’s calling us makes us hear the divine voice in different ways as individuals. We have also learned how we as communities reform our way of worship as a people too when it came to listening to the voice of God in the Torah. What we give to God is our prayers, our deeds, our Tzedakah, our thoughts and questions. All of these bring us closer to the Eternal One.