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Out of the Rubble - Kol Nidre 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Near the beginning of the pandemic, as Dorshei Tzedek and every other congregation shifted to a completely new way of doing things, my colleague Barbara Penzner remarked to me that she had heard another rabbi refer to this as a “Temple destruction moment.”  This felt, and continues to feel, very apt, on many levels.

So, what is a “Temple destruction moment”?  In the year 70, the Temple that had stood in Jerusalem for 500 years was destroyed by forces of the Roman empire.  There had also been an earlier Temple in Jerusalem, which also existed for about 500 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. These two Temples, and the entire priestly system, had been at the center of Jewish religious life for a millennium.  So the destruction in the year 70 was not just of an edifice.  The Jewish population was decimated, the power of the priesthood was destroyed, and Judaism itself had to be re-created.

There was profound grief and loss in that moment—grief that we memorialize every year on Tisha b’Av.  And in our Temple destruction moment, this profoundly destabilizing moment in which we live, we need to acknowledge our grief, our sense of loss, brought on by the pandemic and the crises facing our society.  The loss of life, the economic devastation, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones, the collapse of our normal routines.  And in the midst of that grief, that loss, we are witness to the ongoing violence of racism, the undermining of our democracy, the travails of our planet.  There is so much to mourn, so much to weep over.

But the truth is, the destruction of the Temple was both an ending and a beginning. Out of that destruction was born the Judaism that we know and practice today.  The center of Jewish life shifted from the Temple to the beit midrash - the house of study - to the synagogue, and to the home.  The Shabbat table, the domain of women, took the place of the Temple altar, the domain of the male priesthood.  The rabbi took the place of the priest.  And while the early rabbis certainly had their limitations, the brilliance of the Talmud—a vast collection of rabbinic debates and teachings and stories—laid the groundwork for a Judaism that could adapt and thrive in all corners of the globe.

And so, as we contemplate our own Temple destruction moment, a moment when much of what has worked in the past no longer seems to work, we are invited to think about what might arise out of this time.  What might we fashion out of our grief, our fear, our anger at the state of things in our world today?

As one small part of a possible answer to that question, I want to share a rabbinic story about the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple: 

“Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was going out of Jerusalem, and Rabbi Joshua followed after him. And he saw the Holy Temple destroyed. Rabbi Joshua said: Woe to us, for this is destroyed – the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!  Rabbi Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindess.”  (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5)

 What I’d like to suggest is that this teaching is perhaps a bit more radical than it appears at first glance.  So, how do we understand it?

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had survived the destruction of Jerusalem, and was now the leader of the rabbinic community seeking to rebuild Judaism and the Jewish community in the land of Israel.  When he and his disciple, Rabbi Joshua, see the rubble of what had been the center of their religious civilization for over a millennium, Rabbi Joshua, quite understandably, laments the loss of something that seemed essential to Jewish life.  The sacrifices brought to the Temple were a fundamental aspect of the Jewish community’s relationship to the divine.  Atoning for sin meant righting the relationship between them and God, as well as restoring balance to the community. How was the Jewish community going to continue to function, how were the people going to continue to relate to God, if the central mechanism for doing so was gone?

Rabbi Yohanan presumably could have responded to Rabbi Joshua’s distress in a number of ways.  Before the destruction, as Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman army, Rabbi Yohanan was granted permission by the Roman emperor to establish a yeshivah, a place of study, in the north of the country.  So why didn’t he console Rabbi Joshua with words like “Torah study, that is the way that we will connect to God and to one another?”  Or, as the organizer of a new system of Jewish leadership based on the authority of the rabbi, why didn’t Rabbi Yohanan respond that now the rabbi, not the priest, had the power to grant atonement? 

Instead he said: “My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like [the Temple]. And what is it? Gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindess.” 

How do we translate this phrase, gemilut hasadim? What precisely was Rabbi Yohanan referring to?

Chasadim is the plural of the word “chesed.” Chesed is one of many Hebrew words for “love,” but it is not romantic “love,” or the love that one feels for a close family member or friend. It’s actually not an emotion at all.  In the early 17th century, the translators of the King James Bible created the English word “lovingkindness” to capture its meaning. Others translate it as “loyalty.”  Gemilut comes from a root meaning to pay or to recompense.  So gemilut chasadim are ways that one enacts chesed, lovingkindness, for another.

Chesed is not a feeling, but a kind of relational action.  We can understand gemilut chasadim as acts of loving obligation performed in community.  Gemilut chasadim is mutual aid.  It is that which creates bonds among people, as well as between people and the Divine. With acts of chesed, we do not feel love or affection and then act.  It’s the opposite:  we do acts of caring, and through those acts, we come to feel connected to one another.  It is method of building solidarity.

Rabbi Yohanan’s somewhat audacious claim is that through such acts, acts that serve to bind us together in a web of mutuality, we are able to connect not to just to one another but also to God. The rabbis say that we can see in the Torah examples of God clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and burying the dead, and we are called to follow in God’s ways. According to Rabbi Yohanan, such acts “atone for our sins”—they are the avenue through which we can repair our relationship with one another and restore our connection to  God, to the Source of Life and Compassion Itself.

Gemilut hasadim, understood in this way, is not just a practical means for ensuring a close-knit community. It is also a spiritual practice, a way to transform ourselves even as we touch the lives of others.  Gemilut chasadim is how we practice the middah, the quality, of compassion.  And compassion is a Godly quality; it is, as recorded in our holy texts, the very essence of Godliness Itself.

Over and over, throughout these High Holydays, we sing: Adonai Adonai El rachum v’chanun erekh apayim v’rav chesed v’emet.  This is the great holy Name that YHVH, the Breath of Life, revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Adonai, Adonai, Source of Compassion and Grace, Patience, Lovingkindness and Truth.  It is this that we call out to, over and over again, in our Yom Kippur liturgy.  We seek the strength to enact compassion, and to become vessels of chesed, lovingkindness.

This theme of compassion is balanced, throughout the High Holydays liturgy, with the theme of judgment.  What the rabbis called God’s judgment is what I would call the necessary consequences of human limitation.  We do ignorant, hateful things, and there are consequences—individual consequences, societal consequences, global consequences.  This is the judgment that is metaphorically handed down, the price we pay for our collective transgressions. And as a corrective to the monumental mistakes we humans are capable of,  on Yom Kippur we seek to enthrone the Godly power of compassion, to find forgiveness and, we hope, another chance to make things right.

In recent months, I have been turning to Pema Chodron’s amazing book, “When Things Fall Apart:  Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”  Chodron, a Buddhist nun, invites us to embrace a hard truth that, paradoxically, once we know it, can help ease our suffering.  She writes:

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Chodron goes on to talk about the power of letting in not only our own pain, but the pain of the world, and from this, opening ourselves to the transformative power of compassion:

“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole…Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”  And this discovery, she says, will lead us to the healing waters of what she calls “the love that will not die.”  In Jewish parlance, that love is ahavah rabah, the great expansive love of Adonai, the Source of Compassion, which permeates our universe.

So, in this Temple destruction moment, as we sit with our pain and our uncertainty and our grief, we do have the capacity for renewal, for re-creation, for healing.  The answer to our pain is not to long for what was, to imagine a return to something in the past.  And it is not, as Chodron teaches, to wall ourselves off from the suffering within and around us. The work of transformation is to embrace uncertainty and to allow our hearts to break, even as we seek to build something new in the rubble. 

As Rabbi Yohanan taught, we can, through the practice of chesed, make kapparah—“atonement”—a word which means, quite literally—“at-one-ment.”  Making one, making connections: between ourselves and the divine; between ourselves and those around us; between ourselves and all life on this earth.  I’d like to suggest that we think of gemilut chasadim as actions which help build an economy, a social structure, of kindness and mutual solidarity.  This is what we are called to create in this Temple destruction moment.

It is very difficult to encounter the forces of greed and ignorance and hatred on their own battlefield.  I think this is what Rabbi Yohanan understood as he gazed on the rubble of what had once been the holy Temple.  He knew that the only way to counter the violence of the Roman Empire was to build something entirely different.  And he proposed an economy of lovingkindness and mutual solidarity as the basis of that new creation.  At that moment, it was very small.  And yet, here we are today, still practicing the Judaism shaped by Rabbi Yohanan and his disciples, while the Roman Empire is a distant memory.

A new economy of lovingkindness and mutual solidarity is already being built in communities across America, and across the world. It has emerged in local mutual aid networks; in the network of local Black Lives Matter organizations; in the people showing up, day after day, at sites of protest; in the mobilization to re-enfranchise people across the South; in networks of citizens standing in solidarity with and caring for undocumented immigrants; and the list goes on. It manifests in communities like our own, committed to caring for one another and living our values as best we can.

All of which to say, I don’t want us to lose hope.  There are very powerful negative forces at play, but the truth is, there always have been.  The fight we are fighting is four hundred years old, is one thousand years old, it is as old, according to the Torah, as the very first generations of humans on this planet.  We are a beautiful and a problematic species. Knowing that, we need to keep our hearts open, and our spirits strong. 

As we head into the Selichot prayers, as we recite the Ashamnu and the Al Hayt, the lists of transgressions that we need to publicly acknowledge, there is a tradition of tapping ourselves on the heart with a fist.  Perhaps, this year, as an act of compassion for ourselves, we can touch our hearts with an open hand instead of a closed fist.  As we own our collective sins, we can help our hearts stay open to the truth of suffering. Let’s practice some compassion for ourselves, even as we acknowledge how much more we have to do.  And by keeping our hearts open and soft, let’s have faith that we can build something new, something holy, something miraculous, from the rubble.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5781


Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784