We are the Ever-Dying People (5776)

Five Jews are sitting on a park bench.

Oy, says the first.

Oy vey, says the second.

Oy vey iz mir, says the third.

Oy gevalt, says the fourth.

The fifth says, Can we just this once stop talking about the Iran deal?


Just under 2000 years ago, Judaism was almost destroyed.

The Romans besieged the Temple in Jerusalem. Having the foresight that the Romans would ultimately win, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai came up with a plan. He faked his own death and had his students carry him in a coffin out of the walled city of Jerusalem. He emerged from the coffin to speak with the Roman general, Vespasian. He told the general about a vision that he had: Vespasian would be the Roman emperor, and there would be a safe spot in his kingdom for Jews to continue living and learning. Vespasian, pleased with this auspicious portent, told Yochanan that if he did become the emperor, he would grant the rabbi's wish. Vespasian eventually was the empereror, and he kept his word.

This haven, an area in Yavneh, replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin, the assembly of debated and created Jewish law. It became the center of Jewish life.

Judaism became portable. Jews no longer needed to visit one central site in Jerusalem to watch the priests perform various sacrifices.

The destruction of the Temple was a fundamental paradigm shift for Judaism. Judaism completely changed. In a very real manner, Judaism became Reform Judaism; it adapted to changing times and circumstances.

The Talmud responds to this incredible shift: We are taught in V'ahavta: 'To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart' (Deuteronomy 11:13). What service (Avodah) is that with the heart? It is prayer. (BT Ta'anit 2a) Instead of only one central Temple with sacrifices, there were, and there are, many communities filled with prayer. Sitting in this synagogue on a Shabbat, we do not know any differently. But two thousand years ago, the destruction of The Temple seemed to forecast the end of Jewish life.


The Mishna was compiled about 200 years after the destruction of the Temple.

One of its books, Tractate Sota, concludes: When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness departed from the world. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of wisdom left the world. The deaths of these rabbis marked the end of an era, the demise of qualities which, the Mishna seems to suggest, could never be restored.

One thing is for sure - Rabbis are not known for their anavah - their humility. Present company excluded of course.


This jaunt along Jewish history shows us that in every generation, change comes. At various times through our history, that change is cataclysmic, such as the destruction of the Temple. Sometimes, the change has to do with perceived changes of value, or integrity, or wisdom.

Some of us complain about hearing different songs or using a different prayerbook. And we are in good company. As we see from these two examples, there have always been Jews that have thought: Judaism isn't the way it used to be.

And that - the feeling that Judaism isn't the way it used to be - is exactly the way it's always been.


Yochanan ben Zaikai and Rabbi Joshua deserve to be lauded and remembered for their contributions to Judaism. But are we really meant to believe that when Rabbi Joshua died, there was no more goodness? Was Yochanan ben Zakkai the last bastion of wisdom?

I think the author of the Mishna wrote these words with a wink of his eye. The writer knew that no one person owns the virtues of Judaism. No one group can lay claim to what is right and wrong within our religion. Yes, these rabbis were paragons of Jewish virtue. But even still, goodness and wisdom continued. Of course Jewish life continued. Through its exaggerated statements, the Mishna teaches us one very important lesson: Judaism always finds a way.

Judaism found a way 2000 years ago when the destruction of the Temple seemed to portend the end of our peoplehood. Judaism found a way when Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zaikai passed away. And Judaism will find a way today.


Simon Rawidowicz wrote about Jewish thought and identity in the 20th century. He is best known not for his academic works, but rather for a provocative little essay he wrote called, Israel - The Ever-Dying People.

It's first sentence: The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of being consistently on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.

We often describe ourselves by our very struggle for existence. You've probably heard this before: What is the history of every Jewish holiday (except for Yom Kippur)? They tried to kill us, they lost ... let's eat! We define ourselves not by our security but by our insecurity. Our very name, Yisrael speaks to this existential angst, as we are a people that struggles. We struggle with God. We struggle with each other. And of course, we struggle with our enemies.

We are the ever-dying people, hovering between comfort and crisis, security and destruction.

This mentality started 2000 years ago when the Temple was destroyed, and it continues today.

Abraham prayed that for a safe journey to a promised land of milk and honey. Today, we pray for the security and safety of that land, the State of Israel, a country that has been besieged, damaged, threatened and attacked consistently since its founding in 1948.


In the recent past, our ever-dying crises were intermarriage and assimilation. They were non-observance of Judaism, and the lack of commitment to synagogues. Today, it is Iran.

In my lifetime, I can not think of anything in the political climate that has caused such anger, division and bitterness as the debates surrounding the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Even polls are conflicted, as they have tried to discern American Jewish sentiment to the Iran deal. The L.A. Jewish Journal published a poll that showing Jewish American support for the deal leading the opposition by 20 percentage points, 48% for and 28% against. J-Street's results were similar, albeit with different numbers - 60% for and 40% against. The Israel Project showed more opposition, with 47% against the deal and 44% in favor of the deal.

The SeaCCAR sent out a straw poll to its constituent Reform rabbis - rabbis representing congregations in the Southeast United States. There were 20 responses. 12 are for the deal. 6 are against, and 4 are undecided.

You may have read our URJ's statement on the Iran deal, one that has also had its share of controversy.

Toward the beginning of the position paper, it says: At this time, there is no unity of opinion among the Reform Movement leadership – lay and rabbinic alike – just as there is not unity among our membership as to the JCPOA itself; but there is unity as to the important questions and concerns we pose in this statement. Thus, there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position “for” or “against” the JCPOA itself.

These are the two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?

Our Reform Movement's position, for better or worse, is in line with the divided feelings of its constituents ... us. I'm confident that amongst all of us, there is same breadth of views on the Iran deal. Some of us support it, some of us are against it, and some of us are not sure.

In looking at the polls of American Jews, there is one thing that is agreed upon. Over 90% of American Jews think that their view is in line with the security and continued existence of Israel. For many of us, the Iran deal is not just a political issue - it is a Jewish issue. And across the board, regardless of whether you are for the deal of against the deal, it is likely that you think that your stance is in line with what is best for Israel.


Nowhere has the nuclear accord been more divisive than among American Jews, the New York Times's Jonathan Weisman writes. Ha'Aretz contained an article which said that the debate has taken on the appearance of the war of the Jews, as if only our community has a stake in the debate’s outcome.

All of us care about Israel. Most of us have struggled deeply with the JCPOA. When discussing it, let us remember that all of us pray for the same thing that our father Abraham prayed for - a safe place to call our homeland.

History will decide what is right. It will take years of analysis and the benefit of hindsight to decide whether it would have been better to revoke JCPOA or not. None of us are able to unlock that uncertain future. None of us know. We believe - we have strong opinions. I ask all of us to balance those opinions with that concept of anavah that Amos taught us on Rosh Hashanah. We must balance it with humility. John Perry Barlow said it perfectly: One is never so dangerous as when he’s utterly convinced he is right. Each of us may think that we are right. But let us allow ourselves to be proven wrong.


Our history as an ever-dying people began with the destruction of the Temple. That Temple was destroyed by the Romans. But it is crucial to understand that our tradition lays the responsibility for this destruction upon us - upon the Jewish people.

Sinat Chinam is a concept that means 'baseless hatred.' Our rabbis teach us that the Temple was destroyed not because of the Romans' superior strength, but because of the antagonism and acrimony within our own Jewish community. This sin of Sinat Chinam is one that we mention throughout these High Holidays.

I'm afraid that today, we are allowing the discussion of Iran to lead us into a similar place. Romans aren't coming to destroy our synagogue, but Sinat Chinam amongst our community is weakening our people's strength. The Jewish people may be a light onto the nations, but our flame is getting weaker.


My message to you this morning is not about Iran. It is about us. And it is a simple message - a message shouted by the Jewish zealots on Mount Sinai, a message shouted by brave men and women of the Israeli army, a message shouted by our efforts to live joyous, Jewish lives - Am. Israel. Chai. The people of Israel live.

I do think that Iran poses a serious crisis to the security of Israel. I think that we live in dangerous, tumultuous times. It is a scary to be Jewish in a world that is growing with radical antisemitism, hatred and intolerance. But, I also think that we will survive today's harrowing present. We will make it. We will survive. We are the ever-dying people.

We need to keep hope in our hearts as we journey toward our uncertain future. Abraham did not know where his journey would take him. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai did not know what would happen when he left Jerusalem's city walls. That same uncertainty is now upon us.

Let us approach that uncertainty with a commitment to each other. We will listen to each other. We will learn from each other. We will disagree, perhaps even vehemently so, but we will respect one another. Look around this sanctuary. Every person in here cares about Judaism. Each of us cares about the future. Let us remember that. We will not engage in Sinat Chinam. If we can do this, if we can courageously step into the uncertain future with unity and hope, we will no longer be the ever-dying people... We will be the ever-living people.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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