Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Emor
Let’s go back a couple thousand years. We find ourselves standing in the courtyard of the Holy of holies. The sacrificial cult reigns supreme in the life of Judea’s religious population – where we get the name of our tradition – Judaism – the religion of the Judah-ites. The high priest was a politically appointed figure – the legacy of our Torah priesthood no longer passed in the way Torah proscribed. The Sanhedrin had become simply Roman court holding the residents legally captive to the will of Rome. The Jews began to rebel. This was not what Torah said was supposed to happen. Yokhanan ben Zakkai argued against the rebellion. Certainly, this was not right, but rebelling against Rome would only cause destruction. His repeated calls for peace angered the Jews and their fight waged on.
As legend has it, Yokhanan ben Zakkai lay in hiding. He told his disciples to put him in a coffin and carry him out of the gates, arguing that the dead need to be buried. The sentry uncovered the plot – opened the coffin and pulled the sage from its midst. Zakkai demanded to see the general – Vespasian. He told the general that he was about to be named emperor. In just that moment, news came that Titulus died, elevating Vespasian to Emperor. For the prophecy, the new emperor granted Yokhanan ben Zakkai Yavneh for refuge. Ultimately, the Roman legions began breeching the walls of the city to quell the rebellion. The fires raged throughout the city. The altar in the holy of holies lay in ruin. The wealth of the Temple left for Rome under the leadership of Titus, Vespasian’s son. Jerusalem died. Judaism had died.
No, neither did. The altar died. Jerusalem can never die – too important to too many – like the Pheonix it rises again and again.
Judaism didn’t either. It mutated. People cried that Judaism as dead. He taught that it would live, only differently. Without an altar – study and prayer took primacy. Prayers replaced sacrifices. The rabbinic tradition becomes primary.
The sages had to figure out what to do with this tradition. The Rabbis focused on rebuilding community. They understood that Judaism could no longer be one size fits all.
The rules for a community standardized in that status no longer factored into someone’s accountability. Read in Torah’s command as allegories, the sages looked at the proscribed sacrifices and at the gifts the people gave to Moses in the wilderness. First, the text tells us that even while the rules apply to all, those who have means bring more valuable offerings. Those who struggle bring goat hair or flour. In God’s eyes, we teach, they are the same offering. The “ger toshav – stranger” has the same rights at the altar and before the courts as a citizen.
The literal text called for offerings at an altar. The altar in Jerusalem was gone, but the fire moved from the stones to the soul. There was no longer one altar, there were thousands. The sacrifice transformed into service. The judgmental Priest gave way to the Rabbinic interpretation of text.
The Rabbis responded by teaching “Aelu v’aelu – these words and these words are both the words of the living God.” We did not have to agree. In fact, we must learn to dignify answers and practices different from our own. Hence the origin of the joke – “If you have three Jews, you have ten opinions.”
Backing this perspective in text, the portion that we read on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, reminds us that the covenant that God makes with humanity … with all of humanity. It includes all people who are there and all people who are not there – everybody (Deuteronomy). Codifying the teaching, we read in texts from thousands of years ago and echoed through the ages. God gave the Torah in the wilderness of Sinai, in a land owned by nobody – including Israel, so that nobody, including Israel could claim exclusive ownership of it.
The commitment to using Torah to start conversations and not enforce judgment continues to evolve. The same text yields differing practices and understandings all over the world, It fosters divergent religious beliefs and the foundation of different religions. Each though, inherits God’s command to repair and heal the broken pieces of the world. In this week’s Torah portion, We read a lot about the indiscretions we thrust upon people. Amidst the instructions regarding with whom we can and cannot associate, the text keeps throwing in the command to treat them all with holiness. It is almost as if the text debates itself. One voice says, “Don’t hang around those people.” The other respond, “Treat them with holiness.” So what do we do? We preach the gospel of universal love and human dignity, but then throw thousands of years out the window when we decide, as if we are God, who deserves it and who does not. Seems to me that we need to go back to our roots and let God make these decisions. Our job – to continue evolving and expanding our love and respect for each other.