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).