Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.
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?
The short answer is that overwhelmingly the prophets, the Sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realized that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifice by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality, and so on.
Jews did not abandon the past. We still refer constantly to the sacrifices in our prayers. But we do not cling to the past. Nor do we take refuge in irrationality. We think through the future and create institutions like the synagogue, house of study and school that could be built anywhere and sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions.
That is no small achievement. The world’s greatest civilizations have all, in time, become extinct while Judaism has always survived. In one sense that was surely Divine providence. But in another it was the foresight of people like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who resisted cognitive breakdown, created solutions today for the problems of tomorrow, who did not seek refuge in the irrational, and who quietly built the Jewish future.
Surely there is a lesson here for the Jewish people today. Plan generations ahead. Think at least 25 years into the future. Contemplate worst-case scenarios. Ask what we would do if… What saved the Jewish people was their ability, despite their deep and abiding faith, never to let go of rational thought, and despite their loyalty to the past, to keep planning for the future.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).
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.
The creation of the world is described twice. Each description serves a unique purpose.
Question: I recently loaned money to a friend who has been able to repay only part of it. This was an interest-free loan. We exchanged a signed IOU, not a proper shtar with witnesses, since I have always trusted her integrity and only wanted a document that confirms what was loaned and what was repaid. Now that shemittah is approaching, what should I do? Should I forgive the loan? And if my friend is not able to repay it, may I deduct the unpaid money from my ma’aser requirement?
To the surprise of our protectzia-invested acquaintances, my family has thrived in our daled amos without that amenity, b’ezras Hashem.
I, the one who is housed inside this body, am completely and utterly spiritual.
Should we sit in the sukkah on a day that may be the eighth day when we are not commanded to sit in the sukkah at all?
For Appearance’s Sake
‘Shammai Did Not Follow Their Own Ruling’
(Yevamos 13b 14a)
If one hurts another human being, God is hurt; if one brings joy to another, God is more joyous.
I’m grateful to Hashem for everything; Just the same, I’d love a joyous Yom Tov without aggravation.
Bereshit: Life includes hard choices that challenge our decisions, leaving lingering complications.
Rabbi Fohrman:” Great evils are often wrought by those who are blithely unaware of the power they wield.”
The emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is a most distinctive features of Jewish thought.
The Torah emphasizes the joy of Sukkot, for after a season of labor, we celebrate our prosperity.
The encounter with the timeless stability of the divine occurs within the Sukkot.
The emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is a most distinctive features of Jewish thought.
When we cry from the heart, someone listens; When we cry on Yom Kippur, God hears us.
Who am I? What are the most important things in my life? What do I want to be remembered for? If, as a purely hypothetical exercise, I were to imagine reading my own obituary, what would I want it to say? These are the questions Rosh Hashanah urges us to ask ourselves. As we pray […]
Simply, for Rambam the number 14 (2×7) was his favored organizing principle.
Torah isn’t a theological treatise or a metaphysical system but a series of stories linked over time
We believe that God created each of us, regardless of color, class, culture or creed, in His image.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/tackling-tomorrows-problems/2012/03/28/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: