The Hebrews or Ivrim עברים discovered YHVH, the divine presence, while in
the Desert. During their journeys they encountered the threshold between this world and the world of spirit. They recognized the limitations of the material world and the vastness of the spirit world. They named this spiritual threshold Adonai אדני, which derives from the Hebrew word Eden אדן, threshold.
When the Hebrews settled in the land of Israel they built a sanctuary for Adonai, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. King Solomon built it in about 1000 BCE. For a long stretch of about a thousand years the Hebrews, who were later called Judaeans or ״Jews״ for short, attended the Temple in Jerusalem for rites and rituals that kept them in awareness of… connection with The Threshold, with Adonai. Their spiritual life, their culture, their national identity depended on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
In 70 c.e. the Jews rebelled against the Roman empire, which now ruled the civilized world including Judaea. The Romans in turn crushed the rebellion by placing a siege on Jerusalem… eventually conquering the city... burning the thousand-year-old Temple down to the ground. They killed many... exiling the rest to Rome as POWs and slaves.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, a contemporaneous sage, escaped the besieged city before its destruction and struck a deal with Titus the Roman general.
“Give me the little town of Yavneh and permission to establish a school of Torah there... I will keep the peace and quiet moving forward.” The Romans agreed. In his Torah academy he began reconstructing Judaism relieving it from its traditional dependance on the Temple in Jerusalem and on its sacrificial rites. Rabbi Ben Zakai "sacrificed" the Temple rituals in order to preserve the essence of a Godly presence in the lives of the people. They substituted Temple rituals with Torah study and home observances. A new Judaism sprung up in the proceeding centuries, which gave us the Mishna משנה and the Talmud תלמוד. Thus, "Rabbinic Judaism" was created with all its laws and customs. Today we call Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai’s Judaism Orthodox Judaism, a tradition focused on home rituals, synagogue rituals and study of the sacred texts.
Almost two thousand years later, in the 1940s, another cruel power attempted and failed to destroy the Jewish people, the Natzi Germans. Many were killed and many relocated. From the ashes a new…. miraculous Judaism rose up, the Modern state of Israel. We, Israel-era Jews, in essence, also sacrificed traditional forms. We sacrificed our exile habits, our old home/synagogue rituals… the prominence of Talmud study... for a modern state with power, freedom… prosperity. Though, we are still discovering how to freshly engage with the felt presence of Adonai in our midst. The modern state of Israel is teaming with Jews freely exploring avenues for spiritual learning and practice from Kabbalah to anything and everything that draws down spirit and meaning into our midst. A new Judaism is sprouting from Israel… spreading to the entire Jewish people and to the whole world.
We, Jews, are experts at overcoming adversity and collapse and reinventing ourselves. Fasting and affliction can be forced or it can be strategic. The more we practice strategic fasting the better we become at handling forced fasting. Yom Kippur is a time-tested practice of strategic fasting, during which we deprive our bodies allowing our spirits to experience resilience and renewal. Every year we go through the drill and rise from the ashes of the past year with a fresh start of body and spirit. Thus, fasting on Yom Kippur is the secret of Jewish survival and Jewish thriving.
The word Tzom צום, Fast, in Hebrew shares a root with Tzimtzum צמצום, (creative) contraction, which means eliminating one thing in order to create something new. But we do not do it only for ourselves teaches the Ba’al HaSulam בעל הסולם, a 20th century Torah sage. We, Jews are a people with a purpose, according to the prophets, which is to be a light to the nations. We are the pilot project for the rest of the world. We have a mission and a job to do. Our job is to inspire resilience… and spiritual renewal for all people.
The mission of Jewish tradition was never before as sorely needed. We live in a world that is collapsing under the wait of modern civilization’s impact. We are accustomed, as Jews, to living under threat from larger hostile societies. But now the entire world is under threat not only us. The pleasant weather of this moment is nothing but deceiving. Have you noticed that there is a Tzunami of disease, storms, droughts, wildfires, social-order-collapse already at our threshold if not passed it? COVID, floods, broken heat records, what else will it take for us to begin waking up. We are in a global forced-fast that is moving fast.
What kind of strategic “fasting” is necessary for a successful transition from worldwide ecological collapse to an earth that is thriving and supporting the needs of all human beings, and inspiring peaceful coexistence among all peoples? When the prophet Isaiah said, “then the wolf and sheep will dwell together” (Isaiah 11: 6), he meant Jews and Arabs, blacks and whites, Russians and Ukrainians, Chinese and Tibetans, Conservatives and Liberals, not only carnivores and herbivores. What strategic “fasting” do we need to take on in order to have a world civilization that nurtures nature and nurtures one another?
Yohanan Ben Zakai demonstrated that with less material obsessions (the Temple) and more spirit (Torah study) we will indeed thrive forever. He reminded us that we suffer unnecessary war and destruction because we lose track of what is truly important. He applied the Yom Kippur principle of strategic fasting on a grand social/cultural scale... to saving Judaism from extinction. What then should we do today to save all peoples, all of humanity, from extinction?
It seems evident that our relationships to God and to one another are more important than the grand material edifices that we brilliantly create, temples and synagogues included. How often have you prioritized the wrong things in your own life? How often have we prioritized the wrong things as a culture, a society? Today, Yom Kippur, is the day for focusing on recommitting to what is essential in our personal lives, and in our collective lives. Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedaka - realignment, reassessment (prayer), and benevolence, create a life that is both worth living and sustainable for the long term, teach us the sages.
When we deprive physicality for one day, today, we revive our spirits… and renew our connection to Spirit for an entire year. From a profit-margin point of view the deal doesn’t get any better than this. Today, Yom Kippur, we place ourselves once more at the threshold of Adonai. The threshold our ancestors discovered in the quiet of the desert over three thousand years ago. We do it for ourselves, but not only. We do it for, and with, our people, the Jewish people. But most importantly we do it for the entire human race... for all living beings on earth. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai’s experience teaches us that ultimately fasting on Yom Kippur is all about the whole world’s renewal and rebirth. May we so be wise and may we so be blessed.
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Rabbi Reuben Modek