Rabbi Rebecca Epstein – Shabbat Sh’mini 5781

Mouna, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us this morning. You took on important themes including your thoughts on God, and the flexibility and ongoing evolution inherent in Judaism. As you have heard, our 5th graders are here today, they are just beginning their journey towards B’nei Mitzvah and as part of that journey they are going to receive their Chumash, or Torah book in just a few moments. I am so glad that they specifically heard both what you had to say, and how you built your remarks, incorporating Torah study and commentary, Jewish history, and your own experiences and ideas.

In response, I want to lift up your theme of the flexibility and ongoing evolution inherent in Judaism. You noted that this unique quality was present in the reinvention of Judaism by the rabbis following the destruction of the Temple. You noted that after the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had three choices:

#1, to attempt to rebuild the Temple and replicate that form of Judaism
#2, to let Judaism die with the Temple and to move forward without it
#3, to reinvent Judaism.

As we now know, the rabbis went with door #3, reinventing Judaism. To do so, they kept what they felt was essential to Judaism, and engaged in the creative act of renewing Judaism to fit their circumstance.

How exactly did they do that? The essence of that creative act of renewal was Jewish learning, something that I know, Mouna, is very important to your family, especially your dad.

One of my favorite stories from the Talmud, masechet Gittin, mythologizes the origin of Jewish learning as the act of Jewish renewal.

The Romans, led by general Vespasian, were attacking Jerusalem. Sensing great destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai devised a plan. First, he faked his own death and then spread rumors about it. Then he had his disciples sneak him out of Jerusalem hidden in a coffin, and bring him to the tent of Vespasian. As they were talking, Rabbi Yochanan foresaw that Vespasian would become Emperor of Rome, and moments later, a messenger arrived with that very message. Then Vespasian had a kind of strange problem in which his feet became swollen oddly, while he was wearing only one shoe. He wasn’t able to get the other shoe on, nor could he take the first shoe off. Somehow, Yochanan solved the problem by quoting various verses from the Proverbs, and the soon-to-be Emperor put his shoe back on. With gratitude, Vespasian then offered Yochanan a rare opportunity to ask a favor.

Yochanan said: Give me Yavne and its Sages. And so it was. Yavne, for a short time, became the center of Jewish life,
a place where Sages, wise scholars, taught their disciples, a place where Torah was studied, its meanings plumbed for a new way of practicing Judaism after the centuries-old one was destroyed. As new rituals, prayers, and ways of life slowly developed in place of the priests and the sacrifices, the act of study, of learning, became equivalent to the Temple itself.

The Talmud explicitly equates study with the Temple: In masechet Menachot we read that “Whoever studies the laws of sacrifice, it is as though the Temple had been built in their day.” And in masechet Shabbat we read that “We do not cancel children’s classes, even to build the Temple.”

And the content of the learning was not the only matter of importance. Just as important, if not more so, was the how of the learning.

We learn in Masechet Berakhot, Ein ha-Torah nikneit eleh ba-chavurah. Torah is only acquired in a group, the word chavurah, group, from the root chaver, meaning friend.

Learning was to take place in pairs, each learner challenging the other to sharpen their ideas, develop new ideas, and even generate competing ideas, in a process known as chevruta, from that same root meaning friend, and so the Talmud envisions the relationship between learners as a friendship, a dialogue, in which there was no right answer as long as there was makhloket l’sheim shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven.

And so, Rabbi Yochanan Zakkai, arose out of a coffin to rebuild Judaism. Teaching his disciples, his disciples teaching their own disciples, and those disciples teaching the next generation, and so on and so on and so on, together we build and rebuild Judaism by learning in relationship, each generation empowered to add more strands to the interpretive tradition, each generation’s Judaism remains anchored in the past, relevant to the present, and poised to adapt to the future.

Mouna, you have demonstrated this both in your message and in the fact that here you are, teaching us Torah in your own words and in your own way.

And now, we turn to our 5th graders. 5th graders, you are ready to receive your Chumash. which is a book used in synagogue containing the five books of Torah divided by Torah portion.

In just a few moments, we will invite our 5th grade parents to give their chumash to their 5th grader. Our community will look on as these parents say a few private words of blessing to their child. Parents, you may read the inscription you wrote on the inside cover of the chumash, or offer another blessing which might include your hopes for your child as they receive this gift of Torah, or words of wisdom as they continue in their journey to become b’nai mitzvah, and create the next link in the chain of generations.

As parents bless their 5th graders and give them their Chumash, we are honored to hear the song L’Dor VaDor, from Generation to Generation, written by Josh Nelson, an acclaimed and cherished musician, songwriter, producer, and performer, touching communities around the world with his inspired music. More than any of these, Josh is the father of 5th grader Jude, as well as 6th grader Zachary. Today, Cantor Josh Breitzer will lend his voice to the song.

Everyone, prepare to have your hearts opened as we see our 5th graders receive their chumashim and their blessings from their parents, and watch them take their place in the generational chain of our tradition, a tradition anchored to the past, but continually evolving as each new group of students wrestles with the text and with each other to articulate a Judaism that speaks to them.