In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, Moses gives the command to worship God only at a central location. While the Torah doesn’t tell us where this is (in fact, the name of the holy site is never mentioned in the Torah), later books of the Bible make it clear: the only legitimate place to serve the God of Israel is Jerusalem. Yes, perhaps an Israelite could send up a prayer from anywhere, but if he dared make a sacrificial offering to God in any place but Jerusalem, he’d better watch out, because destruction would ensue. The Torah teaches:
“Do not worship Adonai your God like [the idolaters], but only look to the site that Adonai your God will choose…to establish the divine name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your offerings…Together with your households, you shall feast there before Adonai your God, happy in all the undertakings in which Adonai your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 12:4-7).
For hundreds of years, Jerusalem was at the center of Jewish worship and practice. Jews living in Jerusalem witnessed the priests offer daily sacrifices at the Temple as a way to access God’s blessings. Jews living all over the land of Israel made the trek to Jerusalem on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot to offer their sacrifices and commune with the Divine. Imagine the honor of living in Jerusalem, the same city where God’s presence dwelled. Imagine the excitement of traveling for weeks from your small village and arriving at the bustling, dynamic, thriving city of Jerusalem — the holiest place on earth.
Until it all fell apart.
In the year 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the city of Jerusalem was devastated and uninhabitable. Jews were exiled, forced to abandon their city, and worse, forced to abandon God’s home. Without the Temple in Jerusalem, without the ability to offer sacrifices on the holy altar, what would happen to their faith? Where would they find God?
After a long period of drifting, a group of Jews called the Rabbis consolidated their authority and revamped their faith so that it could survive in exile. No longer able to gather at a centralized place, they made Judaism portable. In their earliest texts, they claim that Jews no longer needed the Temple in Jerusalem to commune with God; this access was now remote. Prayer of the heart could take the place of ritual sacrifice; study of Torah could provide insight into God’s will; and performing acts of kindness could invoke God’s blessing. Though they longed for a return to Jerusalem and the old way of life, they created a system that would suffice in the meantime.
That system has continued to serve as a substitute for over two thousand years. We simply know it as “Judaism.” The religion that we practice today is actually a re-invention of the system of ritual sacrifice outlined in the Torah. Most other Near Eastern religions contemporaneous with the ancient Israelites were wiped out when their central place of worship was destroyed, their traditions no longer practicable. The ingenuity of the Rabbis was that they transformed a religion dependent on a destroyed location into one that no longer relied on a physical place. Instead, it could be (and is still) practiced anywhere and everywhere, untethered to a geographical site.
Transforming the way that Jews communicated with God must have been a great challenge. After all, we are experiencing a similar period of change, not necessarily in terms of how we connect with God, but in terms of how we connect with each other. The old ways of meeting in coffee shops, offices, homes, and synagogues aren’t viable as they were a mere six months ago. And we are deep into the process of figuring out the new means of connection and communication that must suffice for now. But with the Rabbis as our example, we know that we have the power to adapt to a changing world, and to create something beautiful and even holy.
Wishing you a Shabbat of connection and blessing.