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it's portable

08/11/2022 09:40:45 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

We have just come out of the nadir of the Jewish year, and entered a seven-week period that will culminate with Rosh Hashanah. Each of the seven Haftarot were specially chosen, offering worshippers words of comfort, hope and inspiration to mourn the destruction of both Holy Temples yet find the strength to move forward beyond this national trauma. How is it that Judaism continued to survive beyond the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Holy Temple? Or for that matter, beyond the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the pogroms, and ultimately, the Holocaust? In a word: portability.

The central worship site in Jerusalem was not a short journey for those who lived in the north or south. Most could not afford to take off time, and did not regularly make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Shemini Atzeret was a major pilgrimage date, as the prayer for rain was offered on that day. The Pascal offering before Passover was another important pilgrimage date. The ability to offer regular sacrifices was just not possible, as the journey back and forth might take a week or more. The people needed something, a way to express what they needed to say to God minus the travel. That led to the beginnings of what we know to be synagogues, with prayer gradually replacing sacrifices. With no sacrifices and no priests present, what might this look like and whom would do it? The community would designate a young man to represent them in Jerusalem. He would regularly attend the Holy Temple gatherings, watch and learn all that occurred, and return to his community. This young man would then incorporate what he learned into words, which became prayers, improvising much right on the spot. What was this communal representative called? The Hazzan.

The synagogue continued to grow in popularity as the evolution away from sacrifices was occurring. With the destruction of the Second Holy Temple, the transition was complete. Sacrifices could no longer be offered, and prayers ascension to fill that vacuum was complete. Prayer was also portable; you could take it with you. The Holy Temple was not necessary for one to pray, despite its loss and the trauma inflicted upon the populace. Prayer was able to do what sacrifices could not: provide the individual with a personal opportunity to engage God with words. The sheer numbers and magnificence of our prayers attest to the awakened spirit of incredibly talented writers and poets who could express the deepest and most moving feelings of a worshipper standing in awe before their Creator.

Judaism evolved despite the national tragedy of Tisha B’av, and has been able to survive, even thrive, over the past two millennia because there was no central place of worship. Jews could pray as a community in any place that they might gather, be it a synagogue, a house of study, a home, or even a field.  Humanity may one day take to the stars as Gene Roddenberry envisioned. The Jewish people will be there too, because we can take it with us, and we will.

Wed, February 1 2023 10 Shevat 5783