A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5781 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.
As an undergraduate student, I found a work-study job at the main campus library. Many of the work-study jobs available were based on either checking out books or putting books away. Having passed AP French, I managed to snag a plum position at the Center for Baudelaire Studies at the French Collections. My job was to scan, clean up, and catalogue newspaper and magazine clippings from the archives of a French theatre critic, which had recently been donated to the library’s collection. The French Collections were not easy to get to. They were in an upper corner of the library, through areas that were seldom traveled, especially by students.
To get there easiest, I would often take the old elevator. It was small, slow, and had that gate thing that you had to close yourself for the elevator to operate. It was a throwback, to be sure. On the way to that old elevator, I would pass the beautiful wooden card catalog that took up much of the first-floor foyer. Above the card catalog hung a sign, itself a relic, that stated that the card catalog had not been updated since 1989. It had been 10 years since anyone had put a new card in those drawers by the time I got there. It had been 10 years since those beautifully ornate card catalogs had served a purpose. What used to be integral to the way we learned now sat gathering dust. Something had come along and disrupted the way books were located in a library.
Of course, I’m talking about computers and database systems that allowed for much faster sorting and searching of books. As computers became more ubiquitous, the categories of searching for a book – by author, subject, or title – didn’t change, but the method did. No longer rifling through cards, now just hitting a button to see where in the many floors and stacks of books the one book you were looking for could be located.
We might not feel it now, since we’re 30 plus years into it, but the onset of the computing age disrupted long traditions of how things were done. No facet of our lives has remained untouched by it. We all now carry minicomputers in our pockets with the ability to access any information we want, and all of them are more powerful than that first computer installed in 1989. Some of you are watching me on one right now. Some of you are on Facebook telling everyone else how great this sermon is! The disruption that computing brought about has no doubt changed the course of our lives as individuals and as a society.
The personal computing age was a disruption of our own making and our own progress. And as a society, we determined that we liked the new technology and so we embraced it. But not all disruptions are of our own doing. Sometimes disruptions are imposed upon us by others. And sometimes by forces entirely out of human hands.
We’re living through a major disruption right now. We’re living through a pandemic. While we are all still working hard just to make it through the day to day, given that we’re six months in, we’re also beginning to wonder what it all means and what lessons we can take from it. We are seekers of meaning, as humans. It’s not just about finding out why the pandemic happened; we have a sense of that, thanks to science. Rather, we seek to make sense of how it has affected us. Finding silver linings and moments of blessing in the midst of the chaos is important. To make sense of this, though, requires deeper and longer consideration. It means reflecting on the broader, longer-lasting results of this disruption. We know much of what will come after is based on how we choose to respond.
So, how do we respond to such an overwhelming disruption? If there’s one thing the Jewish people can handle, it’s disruption. You don’t survive for 4,000 years and not go through ups and downs with the world around you. The previous disruptions in our people’s history show us that a commitment to values and a sense of flexibility are required. It’s not about closing the library, it’s about embracing new ways of finding the book we are looking for.
In the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews had begun to revolt against the Romans’ imposing rule and high taxes. The Romans retaliated by looting the Temple in Jerusalem. By the year 70, Imperial Rome had had it with the Judean rebels. After four years of skirmishes and political maneuvering, the battalions laid siege to Jerusalem, and ultimately, the Temple was destroyed and the people exiled from their holy city.
Talk about a disruption. For the last number of centuries, the Temple in Jerusalem had been God’s abode, the only way that your petition, thanks, apology, or praise reached God. It went up in the smoke from the altar in a pleasing aroma to the Eternal, overseen by the priests.
Roman invasion could have been the end. Jews’
holy sites lay in ruins, their way of life no longer available to them. Their neighbors gone, either victims of the
revolt or having fled. This could have
been the moment that the Jewish people raised the white flag and said to God,
“You know what?! Enough is enough! This is the second time you’ve kicked us out
of your house, and we get the hint! We’re
not coming back!”
What do you do when the only way to get to God is gone? How do you respond when the way of life you knew has been taken from you? Some Jews did leave, to be sure. There was a group of folks in the Galilee spreading ideas and teachings about salvation though the Son of God. But one group of Jews said that rather than let the disruption be their end, they would adapt. If the old technology no longer was available, they would figure out something new. Does God want all those sacrifices, anyway? The Prophet Isaiah tells us no, doesn’t he?
Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a leader of the early rabbis, saw the writing on the wall. He knew the Romans would crush the rebellion and destroy Jerusalem. He decided that the survival of God’s people and hewing to the values he held dear was important enough to find a way to adapt Judaism to their world after the disruption.
According to the Talmud, Ben Zakkai conspires to have himself smuggled out of Jerusalem. He first feigns sickness and makes a big ruckus about it, so everyone knows that he has “fallen ill.” Then, he spreads the rumor that he has died, and he has himself placed in a coffin, which is carried out of the city by two of his colleagues, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Once out of the city, Ben Zakkai emerges from the coffin and makes a deal with the Roman governor, Vespasian. The Talmud, not always subtle in its imagery, is making a point with this story about how Judaism will continue to live, and in fact never died to begin with. The story represents continuity through adaptability.
What deal did Ben Zakkai strike with Vespasian? Ben Zakkai says: “Give me Yavne and its Sages and do not destroy it, and spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels, and lastly give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”
After the disruption, this is what’s on Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s mind. Spare the sages: let us keep our traditions; spare the dynasty: let us keep our future; give me doctors to heal: my people are hurting and I need to care for them. In the midst of the disruption, his concern is to make sure everyone is cared for.
Every step, Ben Zakkai is thinking about what can be done to adapt to the new reality and care for those around him. He knows his actions affect his people. Save the sages. Save the dynasty of learning. Let us go down by the coast and keep to ourselves there, safe and healthy. Vespasian agrees, and the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism we know, begins in earnest. Without the adaptation to disruption—and without disruption itself—friends, we would not be here, and neither would the Judaism we know.
The Rabbis may have had no choice but to abandon the Temple physically, but they made a choice not to abandon it spiritually. This afternoon, we will read the Avodah Service, which tells the tale of the service of the High Priest and recounts what happened in the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. The Rabbis reframe the Temple worship as prayer and study of Torah, and for them, that is how they, and now we, get to God. The technology changed. It required an adaptation to the disruption, a new way of searching. But it didn’t require leaving the library behind.
Adaptation also didn’t require leaving the disruption behind. It stayed with them. This pandemic will stay with us. It will color the choices we make and the world we will inhabit once we’re allowed back out into the world.
It seems so far away still. Disruptions are hard to live through.
Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and his contemporaries were certainly pained to see their glorious city in ruins. We are pained as we see the numbers increase, as we feel our lives on hold, as we lose jobs, as we wait for a vaccine. But the rabbis recognized that there was an opportunity before them, to adapt. They understood that even without the Temple, God was still present in their lives in very real ways. Even after the pandemic, all that was important to us will remain, but it will be up to us to consider how we approach it.
Will we allow this disruption to foster innovation in our lives? Will we make space after the disruption to reevaluate the lives we lived before? Will we allow ourselves the flexibility to incorporate the new technology that emerges? Will we move toward more engagement since we’ve been so distant from each other? Will we recognize how much we are all connected to each other in ways that we did not understand before?
COVID is a disruption. But we will make it through because we do it in a small way every year. Because Yom Kippur is a disruption too. It’s a disruption in our year, a disruption to our habits, and it calls upon us to consider what was before and whether we want it to continue after. As with other disruptions we experience, ultimately today is not about the day itself, but what we choose to do afterwards, mi yom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha’ba: from this Yom Kippur until the next, we heard so beautifully chanted last night in the Kol Nidre. As much as this day asks us to look back on our deeds, we are also prodded to look forward to the life we hope to live in the aftermath. We ask ourselves: Will we allow the new technology of teshuvah to guide us today, or will we still be looking through our card catalog of sins?
After we take off our masks for the last time, will we cling to the way we used to do things because it’s comfortable, or will we allow ourselves to embrace the disruption and hear its call to adaptability and flexibility undergirded in values?
There’s no predicting the future. But this pandemic will end. And when it does, we will all have a choice as to how we will live. At the end of our Torah service, we sing words drawn from the end of the book of Lamentations, which chronicles the destruction of the first Temple: “Chadesh yameinu kekedem, renew our days as of old,” we intone as the Ark doors are closed. We have a couple of ways of thinking about what these words, chadesh yameinu kekedem, mean. Are we going to endeavor that our post-pandemic lives will simply return to how things were before, kekedem? Or, are we going to strive to chadesh yameinu, to renew our days and make the most of the disruption that has been thrust upon us? Will we have the chutzpah and resolve to make something new and powerful? Or, will we live with our outdated technology knowing that we haven’t been updated since 5780?
The rabbis never really wanted to go back to the Temple anyway, I think. And we don’t want the Temple back, either. We also aren’t about to start using the card catalog again. What are we going to upgrade as we emerge from this pandemic? Perhaps, if nothing else, we will upgrade our sense of responsibility for each other, and leave behind an outdated winner-take-all individualism. Perhaps, if nothing else, we will hold onto the realization that what we do affects others. We are all connected to one another; our very breath affects the person next to us. Our actions have wide ranging consequences. And I’m talking about for the good! Think of how our area, our community, this congregation, came together to implement protective, necessarily restrictive measures, to save each other, to save people we don’t even know, and won’t ever meet.
For now, we are in the midst of disruption. It’s shaky. It’s uneven. It’s constantly changing. It’s exhausting. I know. But it will end. And when it does, may we all be updated. May we emerge with a new yearning for true relationship with others and appreciation for the Divine we see as we greet them face to face, not screen to screen, with an embrace. In the year 5781 and beyond may we all be updated in the book of life for goodness and blessing, for health and togetherness.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.