Our Yavneh

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5781 Sermon

There’s a very old joke. 

It starts with a sudden news report: the greatest scientists in the world have determined that, in two weeks, the earth is going to be destroyed by catastrophic flooding. Not one inch, the scientists say, of dry land will remain. The earth will be totally and completely submerged under water. There is nothing that can be done to prevent this catastrophe. 

In this sudden moment of chaos and fear, with this unexpected and disastrous news, people struggle to respond.

An international panel of scientists, politicians, religious leaders, thought leaders, and creative thinkers was convened to weigh and debate options.

“Send people up into space,” some suggested. Others proposed building massive ships, like a fleet of modern day Noah’s Arks, huge floating cities.  Others objected, “These ideas will only save a tiny fraction of the population of the earth!”

The room filled with a cacophony of voices, opinions, suggestions, and ideas.  

In the back of the room sat a Rabbi. She quietly turned to her wife and said simply, “In two weeks the world will flood: there will be no dry land left to live on.  So, we have two weeks to learn how to live underwater.”

We have to learn how to live underwater.

We are all currently living underwater; we did not have two weeks to prepare for this underwater adventure.  We were thrust into it in March, into an unknown length of underwater living and we have had to learn quickly to adapt to this underwater life.

It has not been easy.  Each of us has struggled.  Each of us has suffered. Each of us has had moments of pain and sorrow.  And, yet, each of us has worked hard to adapt to this new world, to this new reality.

This has also not been the first time the Jewish community has had to learn to live underwater.

In the first century, the land of Israel was controlled by Roman army, led by the army commander, Vespasian.  Over the course of four months during the year 70, from around Passover into the early fall, Vespasian and his Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem.  Within the walls of the besieged city, the people suffered from shortages of food and water. 

Jewish military leaders within Jerusalem’s walls were struggling in their efforts to continue to hold off Vespasian’s forces.  

Finally, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, one of the most significant religious leaders of the community, decided he had to act. He needed to find a way out of the walls of the city to meet and negotiate with Vespasian personally.

First, he had his student circulate a rumor that he was gravely ill.  Days later, they shared a second rumor that he had died.  So, Yochanan hid himself inside of a coffin and his students carried that coffin past the guards at the walls to bury Yochanan outside the walls of the city. They carried the coffin past the Israelite guards and past the Roman lines, until they were right outside Vespasian’s camp.

Yochanan then climbed out of the coffin and went to greet Vespasian, saying, “‘Peace be unto you, O King! Peace be unto you, O King!”

Vespasian was aghast! He threatened Yochanon’s life, shouting, “I am no king! How dare you insult my Emperor in Rome! Your audacity will cost you your life!” 

“Yet, the Prophets” Yochanan responded, “the Prophets prophesied that Jerusalem would be conquered by a King. So you, Vespasian, must be a King!” 

Just then, a messenger arrived from Rome, and whispered in Vespasian’s ear the startling news, “The Emperor had recently died, and the Roman Senate appointed you, Vespasian, the new Emperor of all of Rome!”

Shocked by this sudden turn of events, Vespasian turned to Rabbi Yochanan and said, “As I leave to return to Roman, to take up my throne, I grant you one request for having the foresight to greet me as King.”

Yochanan quickly answered, “I ask for Yavneh.  I ask for Yavneh, an insignificant city, an orchard, along the coast.  But it is not the city that is important,” Yochanan continued,  “With Jerusalem about to be destroyed, We need a new place to reconvene the center of  Jewish life.  I ask for the safety of the scholars and teachers, allow us to set up a court, to create a new center of Jewish life and learning. All I need from you for this is the small city of Yavneh.”

Vespasian granted him this request.  The scholars and leaders in Jerusalem relocated to Yavneh.  Days later, on the 9th of the month of Av, the Roman’s destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. 1

Following the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan and the whole community were living underwater.

Their previous way of life was completely upended. For nearly 1,000 years, Judaism had been a religion centered on the massive walled metropolis of Jerusalem and the solitary glorious Temple that stood at its center.  Now, a few rabbis relocated to a small town, a rural orchard in the middle of nowhere.  Their world was turned upside down. Even as they settled in Yavneh, they could not live in the ways they had in the past.  They needed to re envision, reimagine, and recreate Jewish life.

Yavneh was a turning point for the Jewish world. 

Yavneh is more than just a place. Yavneh remains a metaphor for the work that was done there to create a new kind of Jewish life that did not center on Jerusalem and the Temple.  

Rabbi Yochanan began a community of scholars who helped to create a new kind of Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism.  They were not able to immediately recreate their Jewish life in Yavneh.  It, in fact, took them over a hundred years to write the first seminal text that came out of this new experience, the Mishnah.

The Mishnah is built on the traditions of the Torah. The Mishnah reinvisions the practices of the Temple in Jerusalem, and creates new practices specifically for its underwater world.  And while the full six orders of the Mishnah took over a century to compile, the Rabbis quickly had to identify their values, their morals which would guide their lives in this new underwater world.

They do just that in a phrase that you might be familiar with, written above me, on the wall of this sanctuary.

:עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

“The world stands upon three things: On Torah, On Worship, and On Acts of Righteousness.” 2

This new Rabbinic Judaism reimagined how each of these guiding values would be practiced and lived.  

Al HaTorah, On Torah.  Prior to Yavneh, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, were the sole guiding texts of Jewish life and practice. Now that the Temple was destroyed, new texts–the Prophets, the Writings, the Mishnah and later the Talmud–would help guide people through life and practice.

Al HaAvodah, On Worship.  Prior to Yavneh, the community worshiped through sacrificial offerings, through pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and through the rituals of the hereditary Priesthood.  Now, Jerusalem’s altar was desecrated, the pilgrimage sight gone, and the priests vanquished. To commune with the eternal, people began to worship in their own communities, cities, and towns, in new sanctuaries and synagogues. They worshiped not through sacrificial offerings, but through offering their words and prayers.

Al Gemilut Chasadim, On Acts of Righteousness. Prior to Yavneh, Gemilut Chasadim referred to the fulfillment of the commandments, the Mitzvot, service to God, many of which could only be fulfilled in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In the underwater world of Yavneh, it was reinterpreted to mean Acts of Righteousness, Acts of Kindness, Acts of Justice.  Thanks to the Sages of Yavneh, it is not only service to The Divine which is the highest value, but service to other human beings as well. 

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed it marked a terrible terminus: the end of Judaism as it was known.

The day of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem continued to be observed as a day of pain and mourning.  

Still today, the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av is seen as a day of agony and suffering.  Observed through fasting, penitential prayers, and communal mourning.

Yet, it does not have to be.

Because the day the Temple was destroyed was the inflection point between one kind of Jewish life and another.

The earliest leaders of the modern Reform movement suggested that, yes, Tisha B’Av was a day of sorrow, but it was also a day of thanksgiving.  In the earliest American Reform Prayerbook–written by Rabbi David Einhorn and translated by his son-in-law, Sinai’s own esteemed Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch–made this transition incredibly clear, in the special readings they wrote for Tisha B’Av for the day of observing the destruction of the Temple.

They wrote:

“The one temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise in [God’s] honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe”3

“[Judaism] was freed from the encircling walls which had shut it in and hidden its glory from the eyes of the millions of beings created in [God’s] image” 4

“In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting, has, according to the words of Your Prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Your law and our high messianic mission which has its beginning with the historic events which we recall today.”5

Rabbis Einhorn and Hirsch realized that without the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we would not have Judaism as we now know it.  Without the destruction of the Temple there would have been no Yavneh. We would not have had the critical transition from priest to rabbi, from sacrifice to worship, from Torah law to Torah study, from acts lifting up God to acts lifting up our fellow human beings, or the continued transitions that led to the Judaism that they practiced thousands of years later

For one generation, the destruction of the Temple was an inflection point, a massive change of their experience.  It could have been a time to mourn and allow our faith to be destroyed.  Instead, Rabbi Yochanan and the sages created Yavneh to learn to live underwater.

So too in many generations and across every age our ancestors faced a similar responsibility.  The expulsion from Spain, the pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust, or the settlement of a new homeland in the United States: each was a sad, painful break with the past.  And each came with its own Yavneh, a new opportunity to recreate Jewish life. 

To learn to live underwater.

And here we are again, living underwater. And we are learning how to live and how to breathe underwater. 

This is our Yavneh.  

This is our inflection point.  It is now our solemn responsibility to continue the path of reimagining Jewish faith and practice through a difficult and painful transition.

In the past, we would have gathered this evening, here, in our beautiful sanctuary on Delaware and in the majestic halls of 4th Presbyterian Church.  Instead tonight we gather online. 

In the past, we would have spent time wishing our friends a Happy New Year on the steps of the Temple before and after services.  Instead, tonight we are going to call, or text, or skype, or zoom, or email our friends and families with those same greetings.

For past Rosh HaShanah celebrations, we would have gone to friends’ homes or hosted large family dinners.  Instead, tonight and tomorrow we might eat alone or gather with small groups. But we will reach out to all those who we could not be with in person.

Through all of this change, we know the same values that have guided us in the past will continue to guide us in this new underwater world.

In Yavneh, the Rabbis said, that on three things the world stands.  So still today, at our Yavneh, our world stands on these same things.  

Al HaTorah, Al HaAvodah, V’ Al Gemilut Chasadim

On Torah.  On Worship. And On Acts of Righteousness.

On Torah.  Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, we learned Torah sitting together in the same room: the Chapel, classrooms, or conference rooms.  Now, in our underwater world, we continue to learn together, but we are all sitting in our own rooms, in our homes and offices.  Whether they are around the corner from Sinai or hundred of miles away in different states and time zones. We have learned we can continue to study together in meaningful ways when we are not in the same room. Sometimes this means more people can show up, freed of restrictions of time and travel.  Still, we have also learned that we miss something not being able to be physically together, not being able to share a casual conversation, a cup of coffee before or after class, not being able to see everyone’s expressions and reactions. We have lost, and we have gained.

On Worship.  Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, we prayed together in this room.  Now, in our underwater world, we continue to gather to pray together, but we do so all spread out literally all over the world.  There is something very special about participating in service from our own homes, engaging in a less formal worship with a glass of wine in hand sitting on the couch.  There is also something missing, whether the majesty of the sanctuary or the grandeur of the liturgy.   We have lost, and we have gained.

On Acts of Righteousness.  Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, we volunteered together, we packed meals, tutored students, and planted gardens.  We stood shoulder to shoulder with others to advocate for issues we carried about.  Now, in our underwater world, we still care about the plight of others, we still make our values known in a public space by contacting our elected officials and educating ourselves, and sometimes we are able to continue to volunteer together at a safe social distance. We have also become more in touch with our own empathy at the suffering of others, and we know with so much suffering in the world our efforts only go so far.  Still we miss the camaraderie of working together, the feeling of putting our hands together in the work of social justice.   We have lost, and we have gained.

For all the ways in which we have transformed our lives, we have lost something.  But we must remember that we have also gained a lot.  We are learning to live underwater, one breath at a time.  We are becoming more acclimated to this underwater world, and are learning not just how to survive underwater, but how to thrive.

Much of what we have gained and learned throughout this crisis, many of the experiences and experiments we have had, we will continue to incorporate into our lives and practices.6

Just as Rabbi Yochanan began the work of Yavneh, of living in an underwater world after the destruction of the Temple;

Just as Rabbis Einhorn and Hirsch began the work, of their own Yavneh, of living in an underwater world after mass immigration to the United States;

We now have our own Yavneh, of living in the underwater world of a global pandemic.

In this turbulent time, we still hope.  Through this experience of pain and suffering, of illness and unemployment, of loneliness and frustration, we hope, we know, we can turn from a day of mourning and of fasting into a solemn day of rejoicing. 

This is a new day for us, a new moment.  It is also a moment we have seen and experienced over and over and over again throughout our heritage. 

This moment is a moment of Yavneh.  Our moment of Yavneh.  Our opportunity to reinvision, reimagine, and recreate Judaism in an ever changing world.

Our liturgy teaches us, 

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

“Take us back, O Eternal, to You, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

Take us back, take us back to Yavneh, to a moment borne out of pain and destruction, so that we can learn to renew our days, to reinvigorate and reimagine how Judaism will look in this new underwater world.

Let us do so together in this New Year.

1 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5
2 Pirkei Avot 1:2
3 Olat Tamid, 144
4 Olat Tamid, 144
5 Olat Tamid 145
6 Rabbi Seth Limmer, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-coronavirus-chicago-religion-six-pandemic-months-20200913-feqhwoncbvba3nl3xervec2joy-story.html?fbclid=IwAR10h1YWekTnLnk2VBa69OZVapGmcAh-r66eJyTTBjziGfWtsrQAe8E2GjA



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