Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
After a wonderful Rosh HaShanah in the South, students returned to their home at Kibbutz Tzuba to continue their studies.
The period after the destruction of the Second Temple, is fascinating in its complexity. The end of the sacrifices and the fall of the priestly caste are traumatic for our ancestors. While the Temple stood, there was a strong sense of direct communication with God through offerings of grain, pita, animals, perfumes and other sacrifices. In the shadow of the Temple’s fallen stones, national questions of an existential nature must be answered in order to fill the void in communication and relationship. What will be on the Jewish People? Will we continue or will we simply assimilate into Roman culture, language and religion? The time right after the destruction is filled with grief, mourning and fear.
The next two-hundred-year period, however, is one of the most vibrant in Jewish history where innovation is concerned. We spent much of our time in Jewish history focusing on the radical developments in Judaism that the destruction precipitated. Through visits to Bet Guvrin and Masada, we examined the failed Bar Kochba rebellion, the attempt to restore Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and the implications of the failure. We learned about Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai who was smuggled out of Jerusalem prior to the fall of the city and who established a major center of Jewish learning in the north of Israel. Even before the fall of the Temple, there were already strong tensions between the Sadducees, the priestly calls, and the Pharisees, the sages.
Absent the Temple, the Sages emerged as the dominant force in reshaping Jewish ritual observance from Temple-cultic centered to synagogue-centered. Specific times for prayer were fixed according to the time-bound sacrifices of the Temple (although the Talmud simultaneously argues that the prayer times were fixed by the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Messianic fervor is strong from the period prior to the destruction through the rebellion, with Jesus being viewed by his students as the Messiah and Rabbi Akiva believing that Bar Kochba was the Messiah. In short, the response of the Sages to the fall of the Temple redefines Jewish life in a way that ensures continuity for the future.
On Thursday, we visited two sites in Northern Israel that relate to the ending of this periodand the beginning of the next chapter of Jewish History. First, we visited Bet She’arim, a bustling commercial center in the ancient period that was also a vibrant center of Jewish learning. The burial caves are a UNESCO international heritage site and is the location of the grave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who edited the six orders of the Mishnah, the first codification of Jewish law. We learned about the importance of the Mishnah, the possible motivations driving the need for a religious and civil code, as well as the implications of “writing down” the Oral Law.
From Bet She’arim, we visited the beautiful mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Bet Alfa. Here, we learned about the ways that outside cultures influenced ancient synagogue art and the daily lives of those who worshiped in them. For example, while Jewish law looked very negatively upon those who looked to the stars and constellations for guidance, the signs of the Zodiac were becoming central and standard parts of mosaic floors in synagogues throughout the region. We learned about the influence of the Greeks through the appearance of Greek lettering in the dedication portion of the floor. We grappled with modern questions of identity that also challenged our ancestors.
After an intense day of studying our history, we went to the “Sachne” for some fun. The Sachne are natural that draw people from across the country for swimming and fun. It is a beautiful area and everyone had a fantastic time.
Wishing everyone a fantastic week and a meaningful Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Loren Sykes