A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.
In her book The Watchman’s Rattle, subtitled Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, Rebecca Costa delivers a fascinating account of how civilizations die. Their problems become too complex. Societies reach what she calls a cognitive threshold. They simply can’t chart a path from the present to the future.
The example she gives is the Mayans. For a period of three and a half thousand years, between 2,600 BCE and 900 CE, they developed an extraordinary civilization, spreading over what is today Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, with an estimated population of 15 million people.
Not only were they master potters, weavers, architects and farmers. They developed an intricate cylindrical calendar system, with celestial charts to track the movements of the stars and predict weather patterns. They had their own unique form of writing, as well as an advanced mathematical system. Most impressively they developed a water-supply infrastructure involving a complex network of reservoirs, canals, dams and levees.
Then suddenly, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, the entire system collapsed. Sometime between the middle of the eighth and ninth century the majority of the Mayan people simply disappeared. There have been many theories as to why it happened. It may have been a prolonged drought, overpopulation, internecine wars, a devastating epidemic, food shortages, or a combination of these and other factors. One way or another, having survived for 35 centuries, Mayan civilization failed and became extinct.
Rebecca Costa’s argument is that whatever the causes, the Mayan collapse, like the fall of the Roman Empire and the Khmer Empire of 13th-century Cambodia, occurred because problems became too many and complicated for the people of that time and place to solve. There was cognitive overload, and systems broke down.
It can happen to any civilization. It may, she says, be happening to ours. The first sign of breakdown is gridlock. Instead of dealing with what everyone can see are major problems, people continue as usual and simply pass their problems on to the next generation. The second sign is a retreat into irrationality. Since people can no longer cope with the facts, they take refuge in religious consolations. The Mayans took to offering sacrifices.
Archeologists have uncovered gruesome evidence of human sacrifice on a vast scale. It seems that, unable to solve their problems rationally, the Mayans focused on placating the gods by manically making offerings to them. So apparently did the Khmer.
Which makes the case of Jews and Judaism fascinating. They faced two centuries of crisis under Roman rule between Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE and the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE. They were hopelessly factionalized. Long before the Great Rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were expecting some major cataclysm.
What is remarkable is that they did not focus obsessively on sacrifices, like the Mayans and the Khmer. Instead they focused on finding substitutes for sacrifice. One was gemillat chassadim, acts of kindness. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai comforted Rabbi Joshua, who wondered how Israel would atone for its sins without sacrifices, with the words, “My son, we have another atonement as effective as this: acts of kindness, as it is written in Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire kindness and not sacrifice’ ” (Avot deRabbi Natan 8).
Another was Torah study. The Sages interpreted Malachi’s words (1:11), “In every place offerings are presented to My name,” as referring to scholars who study the laws of sacrifice (Menachot 100a). “One who recites the order of sacrifices is as if he had brought them” (Ta’anit 27b).
Another was prayer. Hosea had said, “Take words with you and return to the Lord … We will offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls” (Hosea 14:2-3), implying that words could take the place of sacrifice. “He who prays in the house of prayer is as if he brought a pure oblation” (Yerushalmi Berachot).
Yet another was teshuvah. Psalms (51:19) says, “The sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit.” From this the sages inferred that “if a person repents it is accounted to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem and built the Temple and the altar, and offered on it all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:2).
A fifth was fasting. Since going without food diminished a person’s fat and blood, it counted as a substitute for the fat and blood of a sacrifice (Berachot 17a). A sixth was hospitality. “As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a person’s table atones for him” (Berachot 55a). And so on.
What is striking in hindsight is how, rather than clinging obsessively to the past, sages like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thought forward to a worst-case-scenario future. The great question raised in Parshat Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not, “Why were sacrifices commanded in the first place?” but rather, given how central they were to the religious life of Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Comments are closed.
Amazingly, each and every blade was green and moist as if it was just freshly cut.
All the commentaries ask why Hashem focuses on the Exodus as opposed to saying, “I am Hashem who created the entire world.”
Someone who focuses only on the bones of the Torah makes his bones dry and passionless.
The following is President Obama’s statement on Passover (April 14, 2014). As he has in the past, the President held an official Passover Seder at the White House. Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we […]
The tendency to rely on human beings rather than G-d has been our curse throughout the centuries.
“Who is wise? One who learns from each person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.
“I’ll try to help as we can,” said Mr. Goodman, “but we already made a special appeal this year. Let me see what other funds we have. I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”
Rashi is bothered by the expression Hashem used: “the Jews need only travel.”
‘Three Festivals, Even Out Of Order’
Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them.
Question: Why do we start counting sefirat ha’omer in chutz la’aretz on the second night of Pesach when the omer in the times of the Beit Hamikdash was cut on Chol HaMoed?
A few background principles regarding the prohibitions of chametz mixtures on Pesach may provide some shopping guidance.
According to the Rambam, the k’nas applies to any chametz on Pesach with which one could, in theory, transgress the aveirah – even if no transgression actually occurred.
In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.
There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.
Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power.
The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is built around the number seven.
Vayakhel is Moses’ response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fail. Such is life.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/tackling-tomorrows-problems/2012/03/28/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: