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Monday, October 5, 2009


Two journeys are mapped out in the closing chapter of B. Rosh HaShannah, both related to the destruction of Jerusalem. The first describes the journey of the Shekhina, God’s Presence, in advance of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. The second details the wandering of the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, following the devastation of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE. The two journeys tell related stories.

The context is important. The chapter opens by contrasting the traditions that prevailed in Jerusalem before the Roman destruction with those later established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Yavneh, where he re-established the Sanhedrin following the war. The contrasting traditions dealt with iconic moments in Jewish life: the sounding of the shofar on Shabbat Rosh HaShannah, the waving of the lulav, the declaration of the new moon. According to ben Zakkai, what had once been restricted to the Temple could now be done in the provinces. These modifications allowed the community to continue ancient practices.

Just before the text moves on to detail other traditions established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai the Gemara on 31a notes that the Shekhina, God’s Presence, and the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, took parallel journeys:
Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The Shekhina [left Israel prior to the destruction by the Babylonians] by ten steps as recorded in Scripture corresponding to ten exiles taken by the Sanhedrin [after the Roman destruction], as recorded in Gemara.
While the Mishnah told us that the innovations of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai occurred following the destruction of the Temple, the comment of Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi gives us a better feel for the extent of the disaster. The Shekhina and the Sanhedrin were both in exile, though in different ways. The survival of the Jewish people was at stake.

The Shekhina left Israel by ten steps in advance of the Babylonian exile.
The Shekhina [left Israel]. From Scripture we know that it went from the ark-cover to the Cherub, from the Cherub to the threshold, from the threshold to the courtyard, from the courtyard to the altar, from the altar to roof, from the roof to wall, from the wall to the city, from the city to the mountain, from the mountain to the wilderness, and from the wilderness it ascended and dwelled in its Place.

The text cites the Scriptural source of each step along this journey. Ezekiel witnessed the Presence of the Lord in the courtyard, and Amos at the altar. Micah sees God in the city and Hosea confirms the ascent of the Shekhina from the wilderness to heaven: as it is said [Hosea 5:15]: “I will return again to my Place, [until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face].” Hosea, the prophet of faithfulness, offers an explanation. Our sins led to the exile of the Shekhina from the city, from the land, from the covenant people. The destruction that follows can hardly be a surprise.

The Shekhina's departure reverses the path that first led to Jerusalem. The ancient journey that began at Mt. Sinai, a place in the wilderness, moved through the desert to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, and finally to the Temple Mount. In leaving, the Shekhina once again retreats from the Temple, to the country side and to the desert before ascending back to heaven. Nonetheless, Hosea holds out a bit of hope. When we acknowledge our guilt and seek God's face, return will be possible. And it must have worked, because the people did return and the Temple was rebuilt.

Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai requested permission to establish a court at Yavneh. Though permission was granted the Sanhedrin wandered from place to place. Our Gemara asserts that these wanderings paralleled the exile of the Shekhina centuries earlier.
Correspondingly there were ten exiles of the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Gemara: from the Chamber of Hewn Stone to the market, from the market to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Shefaram, from Shefaram to Beth Shearim, from Beth Shearim to Sepphoris, and from Sepphoris to Tiberias. And Tiberias is the lowest of them all.

Again each step in the journey is recorded, even the back and forth movement between Yavneh and Usha. When this route is drawn on the map of Israel it seems to wobble back and forth. It reminds me of Cain’s fate as a wanderer on the land and his cry to God in Genesis 4:14 – Here, you drive me away today from the face of the soil, and from your face must I conceal myself, I must be wavering and wandering on earth… (From: The Five Books of Moses, Trans. Everett Fox, Schocken Books, 1995, pg. 27). Step by step the journey proceeds, falling from the mountain heights of Jerusalem to Tiberias on the shore of the Galilee.

If the wanderings of the Sanhedrin mirror those of the Shekhina, is that good or bad? Does it signal our demise? It describes our fall from grace, ending below sea level. Can we go any lower? If you attend a 12-Step meeting you will hear each person tell of how they fell until they hit rock bottom. Aware they could no longer rely on their own resources, they put their lives in the hand of their Higher Power and began the long road to recovery. Is that why we sank down to Tiberias?

Not all was lost. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai must have known our recovery was possible. There would have been no other reason to recreate our traditions. His innovations and modifications, which begin this chapter, are not nostalgic, but restorative. Citing Isaiah 52:2 he declares - ‘Shake yourself from the dust; arise!’ With determination he asserts that our own actions can reverse the journey.

As his heirs we need to listen to ben Zakkai’s message. Nostalgia will not suffice. We survived because he was willing to say that what once was had to change. Ancient practices were reshaped and reinterpreted. He took the tradition into his own hands so that it might serve in new circumstances to praise the Holy Blessing One. Today we continue to reshape traditions and to create new ones. Like ben Zakkai we too have taken the tradition into our own hands. May the Holy Blessing One “prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

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