Last Sunday I turned in my final exam for my MJTI class on Early Rabbinic Judaism. In it, we surveyed the early rabbinic writings like the Mishnah, the Talmuds, and the many midrashic compilations. For our final exam, I was given two paragraphs of a Midrash from the Pesiqta deRav Kahana which I had to analyze and interpret through the medium of a sermon. This particular Midrash was one which is normally referred to during the seven weeks of consolation following Tisha B’Av and so I began writing a sermon to be delivered sometime in August. However, as I was writing the sermon, the walls of our society began closing as COVID-19 crept closer and closer to our homes. And with our reality creeping further and further into my thoughts, my sermon began to change.
I’d like you to close your eyes and cast yourself back in time.
Imagine that we are all Jews who as children, managed to survive the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Now 65 years later, we’ve witnessed the devastation and complete destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. David’s city, is in ruins. The Holy Temple is destroyed and now all meaningful possibility of Jewish military response to Rome has been squashed. The center of Jewish life is a pile of burning rubble. The fields around it, salted to grow no food. The Jewish way of life, with the Temple sacrificial system that we just read about in our Parshah, has ended.
We can no longer go up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, we can no longer bring our sacrifices to the kohanim at the altar, and the center of the Holy Temple, the Holy of Holies, Hashem’s dwelling place on earth, has been destroyed. The way we’ve related to God ever since Sinai, is gone.
How do we continue without our Temple? What will become of us? Like Isaiah says in 49:14, ‘Has Hashem forgotten us? Have we been abandoned?’
Nicolas Poussin - The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, 1637
These same sentiments and questions have been expressed again and again by the Jewish people: during pogroms, expulsions, and persecutions, and during and after the genocide of the Shoah. Today we are facing another killer: a silent killer. A culling that ignores religion and has most of humanity living in isolation, fear, and desperation as we cry out for redemption from this global pandemic.
What will become of us? Have we been abandoned? Has Hashem forgotten us?
The rabbis who compiled and edited the midrashim which became the written work we now know as the Pesiqta deRav Kahana provide us with the answers that our Sages shared with each other in the centuries that followed the Temple’s destruction. These midrashim developed and circulated amongst the rabbis; in their beit midrash, their schools of learning, and in the synagogues of their day. In particular, Pisqa 17 is amongst the sections compiled for reading during the seven weeks of consolation following Tisha B’Av. Paragraphs one and two of Pisqa 17.5 address the despair expressed in the base verse by Isaiah, which I’ve already mentioned, as our Sages attempt to console and reassure our people. They used Scriptures comingled with their own arguments and commentaries to make their points.
I’m going to read you these two paragraphs of Midrash as they were translated by our friend Rav Carl Kinbar and then I will expand on them for you with my own thoughts, hopefully making their sentiments relevant for us today.
First the base verse again from Isaiah 49:14.
But Zion said: Hashem has abandoned me; Hashem has forgotten me (Isaiah 49:14).
Now the rabbis’ first response:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget. [May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy] (Psalms 137:5). Bar Kappara said: [The Holy One, Blessed Is He, says:] The time of my redemption is in your hand, and the time of your redemption is in my hand. The time of my redemption is in your hand: And your heart will become haughty and you forget Hashem your God (Deuteronomy 8:14 [and 19]). And the time of your redemption is in my hand: If I forget you , O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget (Psalms 137:5).
And now the rabbis’ second response:
Rabbi Dosa says: [The Holy One, Blessed Is He, says:] If I forget you , O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget how to perform miracles. Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Resh Lakish: You find that when they brought about [the full measure of] sins and [their] enemies entered Jerusalem, they took the mighty men of Israel and bound their hands behind them, the Holy One, Blessed Is He said: It is written: I am with him in affliction (Psalms 91:15). My children are steeped in affliction; can I be at ease? If it is possible to say; [He] has not remembered his footstool [Zion] in the day of His anger… He has withdrawn his right hand behind [Him] before the enemy (Eikhah 2:[1,]3).
Okay so it’s often complicated trying to follow the logic of the Sages. They assume a very high level of familiarity with the Scriptures and with their modes of thinking. So let’s pick apart what they’ve said and figure out what they meant. Remember, they are responding to feelings of loss and abandonment. They are anxious about how to relate to God in a sinful world without the Temple, how to worship and communicate with Hashem in this new reality, and about whether or not God even still cares about us.
In their first response to Isaiah and the destruction of the Temple, they put the words of Psalm 137:5 into God’s mouth saying, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” Recall in Bereshit that God spoke the world into being and that throughout Scriptures, God acts with a strong right hand. So what the psalmist is saying here, according to the rabbis, is that if I, God, were to forget Jerusalem, to forget my beloved Israel, then let me no longer be God – let me no longer speak – let me no longer act. They are telling us that our fate is God’s and God’s fate is ours. We, as a people, are intimately connected forever with Hashem.
Our Sages leaned heavily on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, in their reasoning. In fact, Rabbi Akiva, easily one of the greatest rabbis of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, is recorded in the Mishnah as saying, “While all of the sacred writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies!” (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5) That is, the Earthly dwelling place of Hashem. The place that Israel, in the form of the Kohen Gadol comes face to face with Hashem, in a personal and intimate encounter. Akiva compares this Divine indwelling with the intimacy of Songs of Songs because he and our Sages view Song of Songs as the key for understanding God’s relationship with Israel. They understood it as an extended allegory to our loving relationship with God and as a lense through which “to read the entire history of Israel as a love story, to read the Torah as a dialogue of love between God and human beings.” (Kates, p.213) Ani l’dodi v’dodi li -- “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from Song of Songs 6:3 exemplifies this connection, this “relationship of mutuality.” (ibid) We are eternally and covenantally bound together in love.
The rabbis work through the midrash to assure us that Hashem’s loyalty is everlasting just as is His commitment to our redemption. In this spirit, Bar Kappara said in the Pisqa that “The Holy One, Blessed Is He, says: The time of my redemption is in your hand, and the time of your redemption is in my hand.” So what does that mean? Of course, God is God and so our redemption is in his hands. And literally, His hands were pierced for our transgressions in Mashiach’s extreme sacrifice in exchange for our sin. However, Hashem loves us so much that He chose to be bound to us through the mutual possession of covenant. So His redemption is in our hands just as much as ours is in His.
But what does that mean – that Hashem’s redemption is in our hands? To redeem is to gain or regain possession of something in exchange for payment. We pay with our Teshuvah. When we repent, when Israel repents, we “redeem” God. We regain possession of Him, or in other words, we reconnect our eternal relationship. When we do Teshuvah, we make Him ours again. We turn our focus back onto Him. We put God first and we return to living by His mitzvot, not because we must but because we want to out of love for our Beloved Creator.
The Midrash also goes on to explain this when it says, “The time of my redemption is in your hand:” with a quote from Devarim 8:14, “And your heart will become haughty and you forget Hashem your God.” What this is saying is that we may forget Hashem, proudly thinking that we do not need Him, that the world has moved on beyond a need for God and that we can succeed on our own, or perhaps that we don’t clearly see the larger picture and in our mistrust, our pain or our fear, we turn away from Hashem. But rest assured, we can always turn back to God’s open arms because, “the time of your redemption is in my hand.” God is pining for us, longing to embrace us, waiting for us to redeem Him through our return. We are His just as much as He is ours. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget…” “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.” We can once again feel the warm caress of our Beloved in our lives.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Recall all that you know of Jewish history. Judaism should be a nothing more than a paragraph in the history books at best. We have been repressed, enslaved, expelled, and exterminated. Yet every time we’ve come back. Hashem hasn’t abandoned us. He has suffered with us. He has tied His strong right hand behind Him, in solidarity with our suffering, and in union with our affliction.
In the second paragraph of the midrash it says, “You find that when they brought about [the full measure of] sins.” This line is describing our people before the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the first Temple, before the Roman conquest and the destruction of the second Temple, and perhaps even now. Have we been taking care of our planet? Have you read the reports about people seeing smog free skies for the first time in their lives? Have we been taking care of each other, loving our neighbors? Have we been putting Hashem first? Or have we, as a global society been greedily consuming, collecting, and defending our things, our truths, our ideas, and our power without compromise or consideration of others? Civil society seems to have become a thing of the past. Politics has become a zero sum game, an exercise in negativity. We have lost the skills of consensus building and forming mutually beneficial compromise. And need I say anything more about our environment? Profit has become more important than the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we farm. And is there one Judaism or one Christianity? Or are our variations expanding exponentially because instead of putting Hashem first, so many of us are putting our own truths first and customizing our theology and our practice, and branching further and further away from each other.
The Midrash continues, “and [their] enemies entered Jerusalem.” But for God to get humanity’s attention, it seems we need a crisis: a flood, a destroyed Temple, a gas chamber, or a viral plague. We get so wound up in the rat race of consumption and in the pursuit of our own truths, that we need a knock upside our heads to be reminded of the greater truth. And so the Midrash continues, “they took the mighty men of Israel and bound their hands behind them.” So we suffer the crisis, unable to prevent the death and destruction that must come to get our attention.
But we are NOT alone. Again, the Midrash says, “The Holy One, Blessed Is He, said: It is written: I am with him in affliction (Psalms 91:15). My children are steeped in affliction; can I be at ease?” When your child is in pain, doesn’t your heart hurt? When your child is suffering, don’t you suffer? And yet, when your child needs discipline, do you not apply it even though it may hurt in the short term?
The Rabbis’ continued, “If it is possible to say: [He] has not remembered his footstool [Zion] in the day of His anger… He has withdrawn His right hand behind [Him] before the enemy” (Eikhah 2:[1,] 3). That’s from Lamentations and what its saying is that God has not forgotten Zion in His anger. He has just withdrawn his protection temporarily so as to discipline and get our attention. He has metaphorically tied his strong right hand behind His back: allowing the flood waters to rise, the Babylonians to invade, the Romans to destroy, the Nazis to blitz, and COVID-19 to spread.
In summary, what our Sages are trying to say here in this Midrash is God has not abandoned us nor forgotten us. He couldn’t. We are bound to God in a covenantal relationship of mutual possession based on love; where our fate is in God’s hands and His is in ours. Whether you read the Scriptures through Song of Song’s metaphoric lense of covenantal love and mutual possession between God and Israel or you read them through the psalmist’s analogy where we are children of Hashem, either way we are eternally bound with our Creator. When our loved ones are suffering, we suffer, and when we suffer, so does Hashem. He does not forget us. He does not abandon us. He suffers alongside, sometimes even carrying us when the path is overwhelming because Hashem is ready, willing and desires to redeem us, to save us, and to restore us to right relationship. Meanwhile all we need to do is turn back to Hashem to redeem him, to restore our relationship with our Beloved, our Creator and Partner. We are His and He is ours. Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li.
I don’t know how bad our current pandemic will be or how many people it will take from us. What I am certain of is this: God is crying right now. He feels our pain and our panic, and He is among us with open arms. We need to use this crisis, this grave moment, to re-evaluate our lives, our laws, our economy, our industry, our politics, and our culture. Religion, as it has become, focused on personal truth and empowerment, or on love and grace without personal responsibility, and so contentious, where I am right so you must be wrong, needs to change. Just like Judaism changed after the Temple was destroyed, so too must it change again. We need to come together and turn to Hashem. We need to rebuild this world as the Garden it should have been, in partnership with God.
In a paraphrase of the singer Matisyahu, ‘We need to treat people the same, stop the violence, put down the hate. One day we’ll all be free, and proud to be, under the same sun [God], singing songs of freedom. They’ll be no more wars, and our children will play. One day. One day.’ (Matisyahu, “One Day”)
And so Hashem, we turn to You. Our Beloved, our Father, our Partner and our Creator, we turn to You at this time of deep, global concern in a bid for your Mercy.
Give us the wisdom Lord, to comprehend the lessons of this plague and the plagues of our own nature that we may come together, following this crisis, and in your name bring Shalom to all the world.
B’shem Yeshua HaMashiach