May 29, 1997
Because of our sins were we exiled from our land, and displaced far from our soil." Thus the festival Musaf prayer expresses the theology of this week's Torah portion: Obedience and loyalty to God brings rewards of prosperity and security. Sin brings exile and its terrors.
For a very long time I wrestled with this prayer. It seemed the height of Jewish neurosis: Not only must we suffer exile, we must also suffer guilt; as if it were our own fault. Do we really imagine that Jewish repentance and righteousness would have stopped the advancing armies of the Roman Empire? And even if such a thing could be affirmed about the destruction and exile 2,000 years ago, how can we, the witnesses of the Holocaust say such a prayer today? Perhaps Jeremiah could see the chastening hand of God in the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar, but for us to even hint that the Holocaust might be subsumed under the same categories of divine reward and punishment -- to even imagine that Hitler was the instrument of God's justice -- is simply an obscenity.
The Talmud wrestles with this as well and asks a very useful question: What specifically was the sin that got us thrown out of Israel? Talmud Yoma offers a startling answer: The First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. because of the sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. "Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed sinat chinam, senseless hatred. This teaches that senseless hatred is considered as serious as the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed together."
The Jewish people
suffered two millennia
of exile because of our
inability to recognize
our common destiny
The Talmud's opinion is more than just sermonic. Its historicity is corroborated by the Roman historian Josephus and other sources. When the populace of Judea took up arms against Roman rule in 70 C.E., they were in a remarkably strong position. The Jewish community of the Roman Empire was large, wealthy and well-connected. Some historians estimate that fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Coinciding with the revolt in Jerusalem, parallel insurrections broke out in Alexandria and other Jewish centers tying up Roman military assets. At the same time, the Parthian empire invaded the Roman eastern frontier. Rome, notoriously overextended in governing such a vast empire, was severely strained. Jerusalem was heavily fortified and within the city walls the rebels had ample supplies of food, water and weapons. The Judean revolt was a nightmare for the Roman Empire.
What then caused the swift collapse of the revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people? According to Josephus, it was the unending internecine rivalry among the factions defending the city. Unable to agree upon one leader or one strategy, the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem spent more energy fighting one another than they did fighting the Roman invaders. One faction, excluded from the high command, burned all the city's food stores in protest. Others simply abandoned the fight. It is a supreme irony that Masada is seen today as a symbol of Jewish fortitude and courage. Those heroic zealots who defended Masada and ultimately chose suicide over captivity had earlier deserted the defense of Jerusalem and fled to Masada when their leader was not chosen to head the revolt.
The rabbis of the Talmud were right. "Because of our sins were we exiled from our land." It was senseless rivalry and spiteful hatred that brought the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. The Jewish people suffered two millennia of exile because of our inability to recognize our common destiny, or need for one another, and our unwillingness to put aside rigid ideological differences and share in the common defense of people and homeland. And if we haven't yet learned that lesson, we will surely find ourselves in exile once again. For the sin of sinat chinam brings swift and sure punishment. So teaches this week's Torah portion. Shabbat Shalom.
Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.
All rights reserved by author, 1997.