Through our Eternal Covenant Jews have survived
Two weeks ago (an eternity?) we finished the Book of Exodus and recited ‘chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik’, be strong, be strong, let us strengthen one another. Last week (Vayikra) and this week (Tzav) we began the Book of Leviticus with two portions that describe types of animal sacrifices and the rituals that go with them. I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that I have difficulty in relating to the concept of worshiping God through animal sacrifices. For Moses and Aaron it was a completely natural way to worship God but we live in a different time with different sensibilities.
In the year 586 BCE, the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Babylonian Captivity began. Before that, being Jewish meant living in Judah, in the Land of Israel, worshiping as Jews, offering sacrifices at the Temple. But after? We as a people learned how to maintain our Judaism, keep our Eternal Covenant, even while living in Diaspora. Even after the Temple was rebuilt, some Jews chose to continue to live in Diaspora.
In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and animal sacrifices became impossible. But we didn’t give up Judaism or worshiping God. Instead of animals, we began to offer prayer as the sacrifices of our lips. We have adapted, we have adjusted, we have continued to observe our Eternal Covenant.
In the year 135 CE we rose up a third time against Roman rule in the Bar Kochba rebellion and the results were horrific. Hundreds of thousands were killed and rabbis were especially targeted. The Oral Tradition was threatened as the chain of tradition from teacher to student was severed with the murder of rabbis. But we adapted and adjusted and the Mishna was compiled to preserve the Oral Tradition.
Over the centuries Central and Eastern Europe flowered and grew to be the center of the Jewish world until the Shoah. But we as a People have survived even the Shoah and continue to worship God and observe the Eternal Covenant.
I know that it feels like the world is ending right now as we face the global Covid-19 Pandemic. I am as scared as you might be right now. I am scared for myself and I am scared for my mother whose 90th birthday my family and I just celebrated at the beginning of March.
I know that it feels like the world is ending right now as we have to physically isolate ourselves and cannot gather together as communities in prayer. But as we have done in the past, we will adapt and adjust and continue to observe our Eternal Covenant. For my community our worship is going online and virtual. Other communities that have a different understanding of halacha will adjust as they are allowed. But we all will adjust and continue.
As we said two weeks ago when we finished one Book of Torah only to begin once again, chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik: be strong, be strong, let us strengthen one another. I don’t know what the future will be like, but I do know that we will have one. Let us be strong for ourselves and for each other to build that future together.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.