A complete history of the Jewish People, in Full
Sermon I delivered last week:
This week’s parsha dares to pause us, and and ask what is the bigger picture? I forget that the majority of the torah, at least after we leave Egypt, isn’t at all the telling of what happened in the 40 year span, but rather a focus on a day here, and day there – the episode with Bilaam or Korach or with the Golden Calf. Then there’s an endless relaying of laws and instructions.
What we don’t read about in the majority of the torah is the political struggles, the in fighting of other nations, the socio-political situations, and for me, that’s what makes this week’s parsha, D’varim, so interesting.
It’s basically a retelling of all of the boring bits from the last three books. But here’s the rub: Instead of focusing on the parts that we actually read about from parsha to parsha, it focuses on a lot of the issues that took place over the course of years. What was really filling people’s minds on a day to day basis, and not just those 20 crazy events. There’s 40 years between the crazy events. Not everyone was involved in building the temple. There was a whole nation traveling and interacting during that time, and I was fascinated about the interactions talked about.
Which got me thinking how my own view of Judaism throughout history is distorted in the same way. I know recent history going back to the Holocaust or so of who’s where when, but most of the rest of my knowledge is a stitching together of what I know from when great Rabbis lived, and historical events pulled from holidays. Especially with T’sha B’av right around the corner – the memorialization of the destruction of the temples, the Spanish Inquisition starting, all that. These are lynchpins around the real moments of growth – the majority of the timescape of Judaism that takes place.
Everyone studies the Holocaust, but those 400 years of culture leading up to it? It’s not examined as much, and it’s the real story, so if you’ll allow – I wanted to D’varimisize a brief section of Jewish history, breaking it down to the boring events that filled the majority of time, frankly – because I love this idea of recontextualizing a past I’ve been looking at my whole life.
A macrohistorical view if you may.
This will be review for many – a mass simplification for some, and possibly inaccurate to most - but there’s a nice feeling when it all gets jammed together like it was in this week’s parsha. So let’s jump ahead a little after D’varim drops off.
Moses dies. The Jews settle in. Skip ahead.
Despite constant battles, there was a certain level of stability post David in Canaan. It all kind of broke apart starting around the 8th century BCE when because of a bunch of infighting the Israelites (a combination of 10 of the tribes) got conquered by the Assyrians, and then assimilated or lost or…well- that’s a longer conversation. The tribe of Judah – which had absorbed Benjamin a while back is really all we follow when we think Judaism today.
They were conquered 300ish years later by the Babylonians and because of that the whole religion stopped revolving around the temple. The Babylonians were destroyed by the Persians, who mostly didn’t really think about the Jews – which let the Jews rebuild the temple. Some were for it, which is why the second temple came about. Some were not – which led to a division but let’s just follow a single strand – I only have three minutes to do it.
Now, the Persians were taken over by the Greeks 300ish years later, and another split happened within Judaism where a large part of Jews wanted to integrate more with the Greek culture. The Orthodox Jews didn’t want that so they became militant to destroy the people who liked change and that’s why we have Hanukkah.
All this fighting let the Jews rule themselves for the first time in a while – the Hasmonean kingdom, that is – which lasted until the Romans decided to take them over. We’ve reached year 70 CE now with the destruction of Temple #2 when the Jews tried and failed to revolt against the Romans. It really wasn’t until then or a little later after than -think Bar Kokhba revolt when the Jews were completely banished from Jerusalem.
Many Jews were lost then thinking of themselves as homeless. Basically – no temple, no Judaism.
I’m going to stop right there – could talk about the rebels who stuck around Jerusalem, the seeding of the Jerusalem Talmud or the pocket communities that then spread. Where the Mishnah got started and how other cultures dug that – started thinking of the Jews as bookworms because it was 300 years since they were last fighting, said they could go rebuild that crazy temple of theirs if they wanted, but how the Jews didn’t because they’d moved on. Temple building wasn’t really the ‘in’ thing anymore. But I need to stop – no time to contexualize the Roman empire getting defeated by the Byzantines, in turn by the Muslims, in turn by the Crusades at about a 300 year clip for each. You know, the story continues, but I’m out of time.
On Tuesday we’ll all be fasting for T’sha B’av – Reading Eicha – literally translated into ‘How’ – and looking again at the big events that define us, but I think it’s crucial to spend an equal amount of time on the events between them. Because what a nation is, is what it does when it’s on it’s own, when not being tested, just as much as how it handles those great moments of conflict and destruction. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and see this bigger picture, so the specific moments can have that much more of an impact. So with this week’s parsha of D’varim, with T’sha B’av and in our own lives it’s good to take a step back at times and ask how does this all fit in? What is the bigger picture? Because it’s easy to forget – to lose track or to never know in the first place. May you all have meaningful fasts on Tuesday, and Shabbat Shalom.
Previous D’var Torah on Did the Jews Create Shabbat: http://jeremyshuback.com/origins-of-shabbat/