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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Orthodox Union’

Numbers Don’t Tell The Story

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Near the end of Parshas Va’etchanan, so inconspicuously that we can sometimes miss it, is a statement with such far-reaching implications that it challenges the impression that has prevailed thus far in the Torah, giving an entirely new complexion to the biblical image of the people Israel:

“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7).

This is not what we have heard thus far. In Bereishit, God promises the patriarchs that their descendants will be like the stars of the heaven, the sand on the seashore, the dust of the earth, uncountable. Abraham will be the father, not just of one nation but of many. At the beginning of Exodus we read of how the covenantal family, numbering a mere seventy when they went down to Egypt, were “fertile and prolific, and their population increased. They became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).

Three times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the Israelites as being “as many as the stars of the sky” (1:10, 10:22, 28:62). King Solomon speaks of himself as set among “the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number” (1 Kings 3:8). The prophet Hosea says: “The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hosea 2:1).

In all these texts and others it is the size, the numerical greatness, of the people that is emphasized. What then are we to make of Moses’s words that speak of its smallness? Targum Yonatan interprets it not to be about numbers at all but about self-image. He translates it not as “the fewest of peoples” but as “the most lowly and humble of peoples.” Rashi gives a similar reading, citing Abraham’s words “I am but dust and ashes,” and Moses and Aaron’s, “Who are we?”

Rashbam and Chizkuni give the more straightforward explanation that Moses is contrasting the Israelites with the seven nations they would be fighting in the land of Canaan/Israel. God would lead the Israelites to victory despite the fact that they were outnumbered by the local inhabitants.

Rabbeinu Bachya quotes Maimonides, who says that we would have expected God, King of the universe, to have chosen the most numerous nation in the world as His people, since “The glory of the king is in the multitude of people” (Proverbs 14:28). God did not do so. Thus Israel should count itself extraordinarily blessed that God chose it, despite its smallness, to be His am segulah, His special treasure.

Rabbeinu Bachya finds himself forced to give a more complex reading to resolve the contradiction of Moses in Deuteronomy, saying both that Israel is the smallest of peoples and “as many as the stars of the sky.” He turns it into a hypothetical subjunctive, meaning: God would still have chosen you, even if you had been the smallest of the peoples.

Sforno gives a simple and straightforward reading: God did not choose a nation for the sake of His honor. Had He done so, He would undoubtedly have chosen a mighty and numerous people. His choice had nothing to do with honor and everything to do with love. He loved the patriarchs for their willingness to heed His voice; therefore He loves their children.

Yet there is something in this verse that resonates throughout much of Jewish history. Historically Jews were, and are, a small people (today less than a fifth of one percent of the world’s population). There were two reasons for this. First is the heavy toll taken through the ages by exile and persecution, directly by Jews killed in massacres and pogroms, indirectly by those who converted – in fifteenth century Spain and nineteenth century Europe – in order to avoid persecution (tragically, even conversion did not work; racial anti-Semitism persisted in both cases). The Jewish population is a mere fraction of what it might have been had there been no Hadrian, no crusades, and no anti-Semitism.

The second reason is that Jews did not seek to convert others. Had they done so, they would have been closer in numbers to Christianity (2.2 billion) or Islam (1.3 billion). In fact Malbim reads something like this into our verse. The previous verses have said that the Israelites are about to enter a land with seven nations: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Moses warns the Israelites against intermarriage with them, not for racial but for religious reasons: “They will turn your children away from following Me to serve other gods.” Malbim interprets our verse as Moses saying to the Israelites: Don’t justify intermarriage on the grounds that it will increase the number of Jews. God is not interested in numbers.

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

During The Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, as we recall the destruction of the Temples, we read three of the most searing passages in the prophetic literature, the first two from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, the third, next week, from the first chapter of Isaiah.

At perhaps no other time of the year are we so acutely aware of the enduring force of ancient Israel’s great visionaries. The prophets had no power. They were not kings or members of the royal court. They were (usually) not priests or members of the religious establishment. They held no office. They were not elected. Often they were deeply unpopular, none more so than the author of this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah, who was arrested, flogged, abused, put on trial and only narrowly escaped with his life. Only rarely were the prophets heeded in their lifetimes: the one clear exception was Jonah, and he spoke to non-Jews, the citizens of Nineveh. Yet their words were recorded for posterity and became a major feature of Tanach. They were the world’s first social critics, and their message continues through the centuries. As Kierkegaard almost said: when a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.

What was distinctive about the prophet was not that he foretold the future. The ancient world was full of such people: soothsayers, oracles, readers of runes, shamans and other diviners, each of whom claimed the inside track with the forces that govern fate and “shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Judaism has no time for such people. The Torah bans one “who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). It disbelieves such practices because it believes in human freedom. The future is not pre-scripted. It depends on us, and the choices we make. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded; if a prophecy comes true it has failed. The prophet tells of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways. He (or she – there were seven biblical prophetesses) does not predict; he warns.

Nor was the prophet distinctive in blessing or cursing the people. That was Bilam’s gift, not Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s. In Judaism, blessing comes through priests, not prophets.

Several things made the prophets unique. The first was his or her sense of history. The prophets were the first people to see God in history. We tend to take our sense of time for granted. Time happens. Time flows. As the saying goes: time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But actually there are several ways of relating to time, and different civilizations have perceived it differently.

There is cyclical time: time as the slow turning of the seasons, or the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. Cyclical time is time as it occurs in nature. Some trees have long lives; most fruit flies have short ones. But all that lives, dies. The species endure; individual members do not. Kohelet contains the most famous expression of cyclical time in Judaism: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course … What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Then there is linear time: time as an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. The French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace gave this idea its most famous expression in 1814 when he said that if you “know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed,” together with all the laws of physics and chemistry, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present” before your eyes. When applied to society and history, this is known as historical inevitability.

Finally there is time as a mere sequence of events with no underlying plot or theme. This leads to the kind of historical writing pioneered by the scholars of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides.

Teaching Our Community To Fish

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Mr. Stein (not his real name) saw his career hit a dead end three years ago when the market went sour. As a commercial real estate broker, he and his wife, Devora, then a student studying toward her degree in social work, knew something had to change quickly if they were to survive financially. Friends and family members had suggested they open their own business, but the Steins had no money to invest in the project. They had no credit and the money they borrowed from relatives went directly to day-to-day living.

That’s when they contacted the Emergency Parnossa Initiative (EPI) and the OU Job Board and began the process of transforming their lives.

“This loan has enabled us to pick up a sinking ship,” said Mrs. Stein. “We are a beautiful family with a new direction and new energy to keep trying to build our lives.”

The OU Job Board and EPI collaborate to bring financial security to members of the Jewish community through job placement, interview training, and skill-enhancing seminars and webinars. Most notable is the EPI’s Business Gemach (free loan) program, which offers matching loans, up to $25,000, to individuals who propose a viable business plan and prove their know-how at a formal presentation. Once the proposal has been accepted, EPI provides mentors who are knowledgeable in that field to help with advice and business direction.

Like the Steins’s enterprise, many of these businesses are not just surviving, they’re thriving. The Steins opened a clinic to service people with mental health issues, and their largest client currently boasts eighty nursing homes. Other loan recipients have created businesses in industries including construction, vacuum cleaners, cash machines, publishing, wigs, Judaica, clothing, gluten-free products, pizzerias, school uniform manufacturers, gymnasia, and day care services.

An EPI loan enabled Mordechai and Elisheva Rosen of Far Rockaway, New York, to pursue their dreams of opening a women’s clothing store geared toward an Orthodox clientele. As a young couple they simply didn’t have the financial ability or support to launch a business.

With sufficient capital from an EPI loan to begin their venture, the Rosens opened Fame. Two years later, the Cedarhurst, New York store has become a popular outlet for women’s apparel. “We are now able to support ourselves in a dignified manner,” said the Rosens. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

More than simply finding jobs for those out of work, EPI works to build a robust financial infrastructure within the Jewish community.

“OU President Dr. Simcha Katz told me how enamored he is with this aspect of EPI,” said Rabbi Zisha Novoseller, executive director of EPI. “These loans result in parnassah (income) for the owner and the people they hire. They are building Jewish communities with the stability they bring.”

Rabbi Novoseller, a former business executive, knows all about giving. Descended from a long line of chassidic rebbes, he says acts of kindness are in his genes. “We’re in the business of helping Jews,” he said. So when some prominent businessmen offered to fund EPI, he immediately went to work.

Sometimes, loan applicants are directed to Rabbi Novoseller from the OU Job Board, where they’ve either looked for a suitable job or been coached for a career path. Often, Michael Srulie Rosner, international director of the OU Job Board, will connect these entrepreneurs with others in the industry to give them a leg up once EPI has granted them a loan. And with EPI offices housed in the OU’s headquarters in New York, an alliance of this kind can, and does, produce vast results.

“The networking we’ve gained from the OU Job Board and Srulie in particular has been invaluable to these people,” said Rabbi Novoseller.

But it’s not only young businesspeople who request loans. Many middle-aged and older members of the work force have been facing financial adversity and are motivated to start their own companies. And with many years of business experience and a more mature way of thinking, they are prime candidates for loans, said Rabbi Novoseller.

In the nearly three years since the gemach’s inception, EPI has awarded 77 loans, which are backed by guarantors. Only one beneficiary has defaulted on a loan, and in total they provide employment for more than 300 individuals. A few companies have already surpassed one million dollars in sales. Being associated with EPI has also opened doors for people who need to demonstrate that someone has faith in them and their business model. After a new company receives a gemach loan from EPI, family and friends are often more forthcoming with further loans needed to grow the business.

Sages And Saints

Friday, June 1st, 2012

There was an ongoing debate between the Sages as to whether the nazirite – whose laws are outlined in this week’s parshah – was to be praised. Recall that the nazirite was someone who voluntarily, usually for a specified period, undertook a special form of holiness. This meant that he was forbidden to consume wine or any grape products, to have a haircut, and to defile himself by contact with the dead.

Naziriteship was essentially a renunciation of desire. Why someone would choose to do this is not clear. It may be that he wanted to protect himself against drunkenness or to cure himself of alcoholism. It could be that he wanted to experience a higher form of holiness. Forbidden as he was to have contact with the dead, even for a close relative, he was in this respect in the same position as the high priest. Becoming a nazirite was one way in which a non-kohen could adopt kohen-like behavior. Some Sages argued that the juxtaposition of the law of the nazirite with that of the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery, hinted at the fact that there were people who became nazirites to protect themselves from sexual immorality. Alcohol suppresses inhibitions and increases sexual desire.

Be that as it may, there were mixed views on whether it was a good thing or a bad one to become a nazirite. On the one hand, the Torah calls him “holy to God” (Numbers 6:8). On the other, at the completion of his period of abstinence, he is commanded to bring a sin offering (Numbers 6:13-14). From this, Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi drew the following inference:

What is the meaning of the phrase in Numbers 6:11, “and make atonement for him, because he sinned against the soul” (usually translated as “by coming into contact with the dead”)? Against which soul did he sin? We must conclude that it refers to denying himself the enjoyment of wine. From this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life. It follows that one who keeps fasting is called a sinner (Ta’anit 11a; Nedarim 10a).

Clearly Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar is engaging in a polemic against asceticism in Jewish life. We do not know which groups he may have had in mind. Many of the early Christians were ascetics. So in some respects were the members of the Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls. Holy people in many faiths have chosen, in pursuit of spiritual purity, to withdraw from the world’s pleasures and temptations, while fasting, afflicting themselves and living in caves, retreats or monasteries.

In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted self-denying practices – among them the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Pietists of Northern Europe, and many Jews in Islamic lands. It is hard not to see in these patterns of behavior at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Hassidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among deeply pious, self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts would have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam.

The ambivalence of Jews toward the life of self-denial may therefore lie in the suspicion that it entered Judaism from the outside. There were movements in the first centuries of the Common Era in both the West (Greece) and the East (Iran) that saw the physical world as a place of corruption and strife. They were dualists, holding that the true God was not the creator of the universe and could not be reached within the universe. The physical world was the work of a lesser, and evil, deity. Hence holiness means withdrawing from the physical world, its pleasures, appetites and desires. The two best-known movements to hold this view were Gnosticism in the West and Manichaeism in the East. So at least some of the negative evaluation of the nazirite may have been driven by a desire to discourage Jews from imitating non-Jewish tendencies in Christianity and Islam.

What is remarkable is the position of Maimonides, who holds both views – positive and negative. In Hilchot De’ot, the Laws of Ethical Character, Maimonides adopts the negative position of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar: “A person may say: ‘Desire, honor and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world; therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme.’ As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing… This too is bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way” (Hilchot De’ot 3:1).

The Evils Of Evil Speech

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

It was the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, that translated tzara’at, the condition whose identification and cleansing occupies much of Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora as lepra, giving rise to a long tradition identifying it with leprosy.

That tradition is now widely acknowledged to be incorrect. First, the condition described in the Torah simply does not fit the symptoms of leprosy. Second, the Torah applies it not only to various skin conditions but also to mildew on clothes and the walls of houses, which certainly rules out any known disease. The Rambam puts it best: “Tzara’at is a comprehensive term covering a number of dissimilar conditions. Thus whiteness in a person’s skin is called tzara’at. The falling off of some of his hair on the head or the chin is called tzara’at. A change of color in garments or in houses is called tzara’at” (Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10).

Seeking to identify the nature of the phenomenon, the Sages sought for clues elsewhere in the Torah and found them readily available. Miriam was smitten by tzara’at for speaking badly about her brother Moses (Numbers 12:10). The Torah later gives special emphasis to this event, seeing in it a warning for all generations: “Be careful with regard to the plague of tzara’at … Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).

It was, in other words, no normal phenomenon but a specific divine punishment for lashon hara, evil speech. The rabbis drew attention to the verbal similarity between metzora, a person afflicted by the condition, and motzi shem ra, someone guilty of slander.

Rambam, on the basis of rabbinic traditions, gives a brilliant account of why tzara’at afflicted both inanimate objects like walls and clothes, and human beings:

It [tzara’at] was a sign and wonder among the Israelites to warn them against slanderous speaking. For if a man uttered slander, the walls of his house would suffer a change. If he repented, the house would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until the house was torn down, leather objects in his house on which he sat or lay would suffer a change. If he repented they would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until they were burned, the garments that he wore would suffer a change. If he repented they would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until they were burned, his skin would suffer a change and he would become infected by tzara’at and be set apart and alone until he no more engaged in the conversation of the wicked, which is scoffing and slander (Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10).

The most compelling illustration of what the tradition is speaking about when it talks of the gravity of motsi shem ra (slander) and lashon hara (evil speech) is Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Iago, a high-ranking soldier, is bitterly resentful of Othello, a Moorish general in the army of Venice. Othello has promoted a younger man, Cassio, over the more experienced Iago, who is determined to take revenge. He does so in a prolonged and vicious campaign, which involves, among other things, tricking Othello into the suspicion that his wife, Desdemona, is having an adulterous affair with Cassio. Othello asks Iago to kill Cassio, and he himself kills Desdemona, smothering her in her bed. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant, discovers her mistress dead and as Othello explains why he has killed her, realizes the nature of her husband’s plot and exposes it. Othello, in guilt and grief, commits suicide, while Iago is arrested and taken to be tortured and possibly executed.

It is a play entirely about the evil of slander and suspicion, and portrays literally what the sages said figuratively, that “Evil speech kills three people: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is said” (Arachin 15b).

Shakespeare’s tragedy makes it painfully clear how much evil speech lives in the dark corners of suspicion. Had the others known what Iago was saying to stir up fear and distrust, the facts might have become known and the tragedy averted. As it was, he was able to mislead the various characters, playing on their emotional weaknesses and envy, getting each to believe the worst about one another. It ends in serial bloodshed and disaster.

Hence the poetic justice Jewish tradition attributes to one of the least poetic of biblical passages, the laws relating to skin diseases and mildew. The slanderer spreads his lies in private, but his evil is exposed in public. First the walls of his house proclaim his sin, then the leather objects on which he sits, then his clothes, and eventually his skin itself. He is condemned to the humiliation of isolation:

“Unclean! Unclean!” he must call out … Since he is unclean, he must remain alone, and his place shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46). Said the rabbis: Because his words separated husband from wife and brother from brother, his punishment is that he is separated from human contact and made an outcast from society (Arachin 16b).

At its highest, WikiLeaks aims at being today’s functional equivalent of the law of the metzora: an attempt to make public the discreditable things people do and say in private. The Sages said about evil speech that it was as bad as idolatry, incest and murder combined, and it was Shakespeare’s genius to show us one dramatic way in which it can contaminate human relationships, turning people against one another with tragic consequences.

From Structure To Continuity To Spontaneity

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Parshat Shemini tells the tragic story of how the great inauguration of the Tabernacle, a day about which the Sages said that God rejoiced as much as he had at the creation of the universe, was overshadowed by the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu:

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which [God] had not instructed them [to offer]. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Many explanations were given by the Sages and later commentators as to what Nadav and Avihu’s sin actually was. But the simplest answer, given by the Torah itself here and elsewhere (Numbers 3:4, 26:61), is that they acted on their own initiative. They did what they had not been commanded. They acted spontaneously, perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm in the mood of the moment, offering “unauthorized fire.” Evidently it is dangerous to act spontaneously in matters of the spirit.

But is it? Moses acted spontaneously in far more fraught circumstances when he shattered the tablets of stone on seeing the Israelites cavorting around the Golden Calf. The tablets – hewn and engraved by God himself – were perhaps the holiest objects there have ever been. Yet Moses was not punished for his act. The Sages said that though he acted of his own accord without first consulting God, God assented to his act. Rashi refers to this moment in his very last comment on the Torah, whose last verse (Deuteronomy 34:12) speaks about “all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel”:

This refers to when Moses took the liberty of shattering the tablets before their eyes, as it is said: “I shattered them before your eyes.” The Holy One, Blessed be He consented to his opinion, for it is said, “which you shattered … More power to you for shattering them!”

Why then was spontaneity wrong for Nadav and Avihu, yet right for Moshe Rabbeinu? The answer is that Nadav and Avihu were kohanim, priests. Moses was a navi, a prophet. These are two different forms of religious leadership. They involve different tasks and different sensibilities, indeed different approaches to time itself.

The kohen serves God in a way that never changes over time (except, of course, when the Temple was destroyed and its service, presided over by the kohanim, came to an end). The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time. When people are at ease the prophet warns of forthcoming catastrophe. When they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the prophet brings consolation and hope.

The words said by the kohen are always the same. The priestly blessing uses the same words today as it did in the days of Moses and Aaron. But the words used by a prophet are never the same. “No two prophets use the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). So for a prophet, spontaneity is of the essence. But for the kohen engaged in Divine service, it is completely out of place.

Why the difference? After all, the priest and the prophet were serving the same God. The Torah uses a kind of device we have only recently reinvented in a somewhat different form. Stereophonic sound – sound coming from two different speakers – was developed in the 1930s to give the impression of audible perspective. In the 1950s 3D film was developed to do for sight what stereo had done for sound. From the work of Pierre Broca in the 1860s to today, using MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists have striven to understand how our bicameral brain allows us to respond more intelligently to our environment than would otherwise have been possible. Twin perspectives are needed fully to experience reality.

The twin perspectives of the priest and prophet correspond to the twin perspectives on creation represented, respectively, by Genesis 1:1-2:3 (spoken in the priestly voice, with an emphasis on order, structure, divisions and boundaries), and Genesis 2:4-3:24 (spoken in the prophetic voice, with an emphasis on the nuances and dynamics of interpersonal relationships).

Now let us consider one other area in which there was an ongoing argument between structure and spontaneity, namely tefillah (specifically the Amidah). We know that after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Gamliel and his court at Yavneh established a standard text for the weekday Amidah, comprising 18 (later 19) blessings in a precise order (Mishnah Berachot 4:3).

Not everyone, however, agreed. Rabbi Joshua held that individuals could say an abridged form of the Amidah. According to some interpretations, Rabbi Eliezer was opposed to a fixed text altogether and held that one should, each day, say something new (Yerushalmi Berachot 4).

Tackling Tomorrow’s Problems

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

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?

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/tackling-tomorrows-problems/2012/03/28/

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