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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - August 2020
From the Rabbi - August 2020 PDF Print E-mail
A midrash tells of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua, two of the leading lights in the rebirth of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  As they walked together by the ruins of the Temple, Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!" But Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, "Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim - acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, 'For I desire hesed - loving-kindness - and not sacrifice!'" (Hosea 6:6).

Rabbi Joshua, understandably, looked back at what was lost and wondered what it meant to be Jewish without the Temple and sacrifices that had been so central to them until then. Yochanan saw something different. In rubble of Temple, Yochanan ben Zachai understood that there was no going back and that something new had arisen.  Rabbi Joshua looked backwards to what was lost and was, understandably, distressed, while Rabbi Yochanan looked forward to what could emerge from the rubble, and was hopeful.  He understood that the destruction of the Temple was a great loss, but that in such loss were the seeds of something new, different, and perhaps better and more enduring.  Indeed, the rabbinic Judaism that did emerge in the aftermath of this destruction has been a tradition of great dynamism, creativity, and continual reinvention for the last two millennia.  

I was recently asked by someone will there be Jewish community in America in 50 years.  The answer is almost certainly yes, but it will, inevitably, look very different.  And it has always been thus.  2000 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we are still here, and while Judaism looks very different, that’s a good thing. 

As we continue to deal with the corona virus, we can see already that this will result in changes in Jewish and secular life.  Trends that were being predicted in how our institutions were headed may be accelerated, slowed down, or those trajectories may be changed completely in ways we could never have predicted or imagined.  

For both the Jewish community and society as a whole, change is hard, especially change that comes from hardship, as we are seeing today and may likely see for years to come. But such change can also be good, positive and hopeful. As Yochanan ben Zachai noted to Rabbi Joshua so many centuries ago, whatever change may bring we will still be needed and able to do what is essential to the betterment of human existence – acts of gemillut hassadim, loving kindness.  Our task will be to look forward rather than backwards, to embrace the inevitable changes and find new and better ways be bring love, kindness, and justice into a world that will continue to need it, perhaps more than ever.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel



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