Greetings from Jerusalem

Shalom from Jerusalem.  It is Sunday Morning and I finally made it to my Winter Session of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Machon Shalom Hartman.  This session we are discussion everything from conversion and intermarriage to the increasing gender divide in the Charedi community. We will be dealing with the Israel-Iran question and updates on Syria.

The sun is shining admist the rain drops. And the Jerusalem air is brisk and clean.

The sun rose over Jerusalem this morning with a pink hue bouncing off the golden stone buildings.

It is always coming home to Jerusalem.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai

Here is a wonderful story of redemption for Tisha B’av

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai Saves Torah

Annette Labovitz

The three-year Roman siege of Yerushalayim portended doom for Jewish nationalism. The inhabitants of the Holy City were divided; some were wearied from the hopelessness of the situation; others, although refusing to surrender, fought among themselves. Hunger and disease were rampant. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was among those leaders who determined to do something about the impending destruction of Yerushalyim.

“The Jewish people are fighting among themselves,” he reasoned. “There are so many different political parties, so many different opinions how to deal with the enemy; theSicarii, or Biryonim, as they sometimes call themselves, are clandestine killers. Anyone they see speaking to a Roman finds his life endangered and becomes a target for their foul play. The Zealots want to fight the mighty enemy and restore Jewish independence; they think the situation is the same as it was in the days of the Maccabbees.

[Ed. Approximately two hundred years prior to the Roman siege, the Jewish people rebelled against pagan Greek/Syrian domination and overcame them. Mattathias and his five sons (one was named Judah, and was called Maccabbee) organized the rebellion. The holiday of Chanukah is celebrated to commemorate the victory over paganism and the restoration of Jewish life.]

“I, and the rest of the Pharisees onlywant to live peacefully, so we can study and transmit Torah. The Saducees want to become allied with the Romans. And the Romans? what do they do? They enforce the siege and wait patiently while brothers destroy brothers. Woe unto us! If the Holy Temple isdestroyed, it will be because my people did not want to live together in peace. It will be because we hated each other for no reason. We are one people, but we act so differently. There are four political parties, each with its own agenda. [Ed. Why wasthe Second Holy Temple destroyed? Because needless hatred prevailed. Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b]

“I must do something, something spectacular, something that will save the Torah way of life. The Jewish people will be able to survive without the Holy Temple, but they will not survive without Torah. Hmm … Maybe my plan will work. But, perhaps my nephew, Abba Sikra, will conceive an even better plan.”

The next morning, he called his nephew, who was the leader of the Binyonim:

“How long will you continue to kill your brothers?”

“What can I do to stop them? I am their leader, but they do what they want. If I reprimand them, they will think that I have joined with you and the Pharisees, and they will kill me too.

“Listen, I have to escape from Yerushalayim in order to try to save the Torah way of life.” He explained his plan. “What do you think of it? Is it possible for me to succeed?”

“Let’s do it this way, uncle. I believe it will have a better chance. No one must know what we are planning except you and your two most loyal disciples, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

“I want you to pretend that you are gravely ill. We will announce throughout Yerushalyim that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is dying. People will come to pay their respects. Youwill pretend to grow weaker and weaker. Finally, you will feign death. I will find some decayed flesh, that has a terrible odor, and I will place it on your bier. You must practice lying perfectly still, not moving a muscle, not even an eyelid. Eliezer, Yehoshua, and I will carry the bier to the gates of the city. We will demand that the guards let us pass, in order to bury you outside the walls.

“What will you do once you are outside the walls?”

“Make sure that I get out of the city safely, and you will see!”

It did not take many days for Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua to announce the death of their revered teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. A great procession followed the bier until the gates of Yerushalyim, where it was halted by the Jewish guards posted inside the gates.

“Let us through,” Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Abba Sikra demanded. “The cemetery is outside the walls and we must bury our teacher with dignity.”

“We must check that you are not tricking us; that he is actually dead,” they insisted. One of the guards lifted his sword, preparing to stab the body.

“How can you do that?” they clamored. “The Romans will say that the guards at the gates violated a body and thereby disgraced their revered master.”

“Then we will just shove the body a little,” they continued stubbornly.

“Then all the Jews inside the city will also condemn you for not having respect for the dead.”

Ashamed, they opened the gates and allowed Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Abba Sikra towalk through with the bier.

As soon as they reached a safe distance, out of sight of the gates of Yerushalyim, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakki jumped off the bier, bid farewell to his students, and ran toward the Roman camp. Once there he demanded that the guards escort him to General Vespasian’s tent. Stunned to find a Jew among them, they pointed to the place where Vespasian sat in war council with his lieutenants.

“Peace to you, your majesty, King of Rome,” pronounced Rabban Yochanan, as he lowered his head respectfully.

“You deserve to die twice,” ranted Vespasian. “First, you have pronounced me’king,’ while I am but a general; second, if I am the king, why haven’t you come sooner to pay your respects?”

“I will answer your second questionfirst, your majesty,” whispered Rabban Yochanan. “You see, my people are sorely divided. Some among them would surely have put me to death, had they found that I tried to contact you. As it is, my escape from Yerushalyim on a bier is nothing short of miraculous.”

At that exact moment, a messenger from Rome arrived.

“Your majesty,” the messenger called out. There was a stunned silence all around. “Nero has died. The Senate has sent me to inform you that they have proclaimed you emperor!”

Rabban Yochanan no longer had to answer the first question.

“You are so wise,” continued Vespasian. “Before I return to Rome, and leave the siege of your holy city in the hands of Titus, my son, I will grant you any request.”

“Grant me, your majesty, permission to move the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) and its scholars from the besieged city of Yerushalyim to Yavneh, a small town near the Mediterranean coast; allow the family of Rabban Gamliel, descendants of the Davidic dynasty to live; and send a doctor to cure Rabbi Zadok who has fasted so long for Yerushalyim to be saved that it is almost impossible for him to digest food.”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s requests were granted. Yavneh became a major center of Torah learning, the first of such cities where Torah was the focus of Jewish life. There Jewish spiritual leaders prepared for a long and arduous exile that was to begin three years later when the Holy Temple lay in ruins. The precedent of moving the Torah center from Yerushalayim to Yavneh, and then to other cities in the Diaspora (lands outside of Eretz Israel) sustained the Jewish people in the centuries that followed. [Ed. As the (first) Holy Temple was burning, a group of young priests went to the roof. Their leader carried the keys in his hand. He prayed: Master of the Universe! We were not worthy keepers of Your House. Therefore, please take back your keys. In the presence of the other young priests, he threw the keys heavenward. Immediately, a Heavenly Hand emerged and grasped the keys. Talmud Bavli, Taanit 29a]

Reimagining Tisha B’av

I am so excited to be back on the bima!  After a meaningful and study filled Sabbatical in Israel I am looking forward to celebrating Shabbat with my Kol Ami community! This Shabbat is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath prior to Tisha B’Av (This coming Monday eve and Tuesday).  Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples.  Traditionally a fast day, Tisha B’av always brings about conflicting feelings in me.  While I read from the book of Lamentations of the horror of the destruction of the first Temple and imagine the cruelty of the Roman seige of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the second Temple in the year70 my heart breaks at the pain and suffering caused during those times.

But having just returned from a month living in contemporary Jerusalem the juxtaposition of those terrible moments and the vibrant, thriving city that is Jerusalem today leads me to wonder how we should observe Tisha B’Av.  Should we really mourn the destruction of the Temple any more?  The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 changed Judaism forever and ushered in the era of Rabbinic Judaism.  Rabbinic Judaism replaced the ancient sacrificial system.  I don’t think this is a bad thing but frankly something to celebrate.
Judaism was recreated. Prayer replaced sacrifice. Jewish study and Jewish law became more central ideas and shapers of our Jewish life.  Judaism became more accessible to the average person as the priesthood no longer had a central role with more access.

And when you visit Jerusalem today and you see the throngs of people living day to day you realize that we are a people who have endured despite these tragedies.  So perhaps we ought not to fast.  Perhaps it should be a day of rejoicing that we survived, adapted and renewed our people’s religious expression.  Perhaps Tisha B’av ought to be a day to celebrate creativity, endurance and fortitude.  Yes say Kaddish for life lost.  But we did more than survive-we beat the odds. Creativity and Imagination of  our Sages like Yochanan Ben Zakkai who took his students out of Jerusalem and re-established a center of learning in Yavne is what we ought to celebrate on this day.   And that is a blessing. And that is a model for what we have to do today. Use our creativity and imagination to adapt Jewish life for this time and this place.  So this coming week on Tisha B’av I am going to look at the stories of heroism and creativity of our people who adapted and changed were willing to go out on a limb to imagine a new kind of Jewish life without the Temple.  !

Jerusalem bomb blast

My heart aches for Jerusalem.  A bombing attack on Wednesday.  Echoes of the Intifada when bus bombings happened all the time.  Let’s pray this is an isolated event. But with the increase in mortar shells on the Negev and Southern coastal Israel and the interception of a boat on March 16 from Iran with weapons headed to the Gaza Strip all the signs of increased Palestinian terror against Israel are appearing.

The cargo of the Liberian ship, Victoria (that  sailed from a Turkish port) were Chinese made C740 anti-ship missiles. These would target Israeli naval ships.

Here is a link to the the Haaretz article about the Jerusalem Bus bombing on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday Hamas launched two grad rockets against Beersheba.  A man was injured.  And now phosphorus bearing mortars have been discovered. Phosphorus is a banned item world wide by international law.  The Israeli delegation to the U.N. has protested the surge in terrorism and violence by the Palestinians.

These actions by the Palestinians push peace farther away.  These are violent acts that do not help their cause. The Israeli public wants peace and wants to come to an agreement. This just further isolates the Palestinian cause among the people.

Hamas is nervous with all of the push to rid the middle east of its despots.  The fight in Libya is against Gadafi is just one more in the ongoing series of revolutions for democracy. The Palestinian people of Gaza may have voted for Hamas but they are being held back and now being oppressed by Hamas’ violent policies and corruption that pockets foreign aid rather than builds any infrastructure there.

Israel needs a peace partner. But bus bombings and missile attacks are hardly a peace offering.

Only in Israel

So after the plane ride and waiting more than hour at the airport in line to deal with cell phone issues (yes Bruchim Habaim to Israel and bureaucracy) I got settled in my apartment.  It is right on the Katamon/German Colony/Greek Colony border! 

I meet the agent a lovely chap from Melbourne who made aliyah many years ago.  Even was president of his shul there.   He walked me through the details of my rental. 

And so after unpacking I thought a little neighborhood orientation was in order.  After all I needed to lay in a few food supplies as Shabbat will be here soon enough plus I am particular about my breakfast! (egg whites with some cheese if you must know!)  So out I go–down n my street, around the corner and down that street and as I hit the roundabout–a voice calls out from a car–“Girl are you lost?”  I was startled for sure but looked up to see good friends from San Diego who have an apartment here and it was clear I was very close to their digs!  I knew they would be here at this time-I just didn’t think my own place would be so close. And I mean around the corner. 

So on my first afternoon I got to see friends from California and have a great lunch at Mamilla Mall with them.  Only in Israel does this every happen to me!!!! Only here!

And no I haven’t slept yet.  But I did grocery shop, walk through the neighborhood a lot, sit in a café, and I did what you are supposed to do on Sabbatical. I have already read two books! One for sure has much to teach and share about. And I will do so at a later date. 

That is the news from Jerusalem.  All is quiet here on this first day of July.  The tourists are here-busses going from place to place.  Which gives the serious issues that play them selves out here in this modern, but ancient land a surreal cast. I am sure more will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead.  But in the mean time it is good to be home –only in Israel!