Every Israeli secretly wants to be Indiana Jones. Archaelogy is the national pastime in Israel. Yet, archaeologists and their discoveries often find themselves at odd with traditional Jews.
Their finding put into questions foundational parts of faith like the accuracy of the Exodus from Egypt, and the details of the life of Abraham.
Putting aside these questions these questions of doctrine and history, I think archaeologists have a great deal to teach us about the meaning and living of faith. It is not so much in what they discover. It is in how they work.
1. Attention to detail: On my recent trip to Israel, we participated in a dig of ruins from 150 BCE, during the time of the Maccabees. We were digging through the equivalent of ancient garbage dump.
Yet, every shard of pottery; every bone; and every piece of charcoal was placed in a bucket and put aside for analysis. We have no idea what secrets they might unveil.
The great architect Mies Van Der Rohe once said “God is in the details.” Archaeology teaches the same truth.
2. Patience: The Maccabean dig has been going on for 12 years. It will continue for at least another decade. By then we might know something new and important. Archaelogy does not yield instant gratification. Neither does faith.
3. Separating what is important: After the shards of pottery are hauled up from the underground caves, archaeologists sift through each of them, searching for distinguishing features that can help make sense of daily life. Out of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts, they pick out what helps illustrate a broader truth.
The same process happens in the life of our spirits. We sift through our daily experiences, looking for what helps us make sense of our lives and purpose. Faith serves as a filter, helping us discern what is important and what is not.
4. Looking at the big picture: Archaeologists do not gather artificacts simply to record what happened. They gather in order to understand the forces and habits that shape human life.
They work within a framework of principles. Their basic principle is that what people leave behind helps us understand the way they lived. By understanding the way they lived, we better appreciate our own heritage, and we can find lessons that will help us sustain our culture and values
A life of faith also looks at the big picture. We do not engage in prayers or rituals just because some person or some book tells us to do so. We pray and act because we believe we are part of something larger than ourselves. We live within a bigger picture whose artist is God.
5. Faith that it matters: Archaeologists do not attend a special church. They are not generally looking to find proof of God. Yet, they share a faith that the past has meaning. They share a conviction that the remains of the past matter to the people in the present.
The archaelogist who led our dig shared his faith with passion. He has brought over two million non-archaelogists–mostly teenagers–on digs throughout Israel. He has devoted his life to helping people connect with the past.
This faith helps guide him through the hours of digging and sifting and recording seemingly mundane details. He knows they matter.
A similar conviction guides people of faith. We share what we love with others. We sacrifice our time, our energy and our resources for something larger than ourselves.
We know what we say and do matters, even if we cannot prove it to everyone’s satisfaction. Like archaeology, faith does not always show us something new. Rather, it reveals the hidden beauty all around us.
Rabbi Moffic’s New Book, Wisdom for People of All Faiths, is available now.
Certain parts of the Bible are easy to appreciate. We know we should not murder, steal or commit adulerty. We know why we should try to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even if we struggle to follow these types of laws, we know they matter today.
Yet, certain other parts seem irrelevant. Difficult biblical passages challenge us constantly. One of them addresses the topic of leprosy.
In the book of Leviticus, the Bible prescribes an intricate series of actions to be taken when someone has leprosy, including quarantine and sacrificial offerings.
Then it proceeds to describe a series of ritual actions to be taken after the sores have healed. The language is technical and graphic. Clearly, the spread of leprosy was a concern at the time. Yet, what possible meaning can it have for us today?
Here are two possible answers:
1. The 11th century Jewish sage Rashi pointed out that the Hebrew word for leprosy resembles the Hebrew word for “gossip.” Like leprosy, gossip spreads quickly through a community. It hurts those whom it infects. It can also isolate people from one another.
It can even kill, as has been so tragically reflected in recent reports about the suicides of two female teens whose lives had been plagued by gossip and bullying. We need to do everything we can to guard against and avoid gossip.
2. The 18th century sage Samson Hirsch points out that the Bible suggests leprosy strikes “only after the land has been completely divided up into individual holdings so that every home has its own permanent inhabitant.” In other words, the people did not experienced a leprosy crisis until they had settled into their homes.
While this observation does not make sense medically, it does convey a moral lesson. The way we behave where we spend the most time matters deeply.
It is easy to be polite in a restaurant or at work. It is easy to put on our game face or our good manners.
When we are settled in our homes, however; when we are with the people who know us best, we can become complacent. We can take them for granted. We can let our worst insticts take over
Hirsch uges us not to do so. The temptation to gossip, to spread ill will about others, exerts a stronger influence in a place where we know everyone. What we say can hurt people more sharply.
Thus, it is here that we have greater responsibility. It is here where our words matter most.
A fellow rabbi once told me that it’s easy to give a great sermon when you are the guest speaker. The harder and more important sermon is the one we tell with our lives. It is the one we deliver with our deeds. It is the one we live with our hands and our hearts.
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I recently visited an astounding site in Israel. It is the ongoing reconstruction and uncovering of the oldest part of the city of Jerusalem, known as the “City of David.” It is the tiny strip of 15 acres on top of a hill where King David built his palace. Other Israelites lived in the area, which was protected by surrounding hills.
Over time Jerusalem moved West, and David’s son Solomon built a great temple on the adjacent Mount Moriah. What was particularly astounding was a tiny artifact found by archaeologists about 6 years ago. It is an ancient seal with the name Gedaliahu ben Pashur who was part of the court of the late king Zedekiah.
The Tragedy of King Zedekiah
Zedekiah ruled when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. His unwillingness to heed the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah and permit the Babylonians to pass through Jerusalem en route to Egypt led to his downfall. He believed he could withstand and defeat them. He was wrong.
The figure mentioned on the seal was a supporter of Jeremiah. He resisted the King’s hubris, urging him to follow Jeremiah’s wise counsel. As a result, his family survived the Babylonian’s sacking of the city, and he was permitted to remain a powerful figure. He is even mentioned in the Bible in chapter eight of the Book of Jeremiah.
An Ancient Prophet
It is he whose wisdom we remember today, not Zedeiah. Zedekiah was not wicked, but he had the wrong kind of courage. He dreamed big, but he refused to listen and heed the warning signals of impending doom. Ultimately, he believed since he was the king, he could do no wrong. He did not need to heed the prophets. He did not need to listen to counselors. One of his ancestors, Hezekiah, had withstood a siege of Jerusalem. Why couldn’t he?
By comparing himself to Hezekiah and believing his status as king allowed him to ignore the voices of caution around him, Zedekiah ensured the destruction of Jerusalem. He reminds us of what hubris can do to a leader, and to his country.
How Countries and People Are Destroyed
He also reminds us of something even more relevant. Destruction is not inevitable. We often bring it on ourselves. We refuse to listen to other voices. We think power or wealth makes us immune from criticism. We forget that our fate is linked with the lives of those around.
Jerusalem, the Jewish sages sought, was not destroyed by the Babylonians or the Romans. It was destroyed by senseless hatred. It was destroyed by hubris.When we do not listen, when we do not adapt, when we do not have the humility to see the presence of God in others, we risk the same fate.
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This evening begins a modern Jewish holiday. It is not a holiday of celebration. It is one of memory. We remember the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
What did not die, however, is hope. The Holocaust exemplified the enormous evil humans can inflict one another. We must not be blind to it. Yet, Israel exists, and Hitler does not.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Jewish faith is not about believing the world to be other than it is. It is not about ignoring the evil, the darkness and the pain. It is about courage, endurance and the capacity to hold fast to ideals even when they are ignored by others.”
The most difficult question in the world
What challenges me each year during this time is the question I am asked more than any other. “Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did not God not stop it?”
I do not have a set pre-formulated answer to these questions. They haunt me every day. Anyone who claims to know the answer lacks the humility demanded of any person of faith.
What I can offer, however, are premises I affirm. They shape the way I think about this question. They can guide each of us in our own struggle.
1. The better question is where were we?
God did not murder six million Jews. God did not start a destructive war. Human beings did. Since Cain and Abel, we have known human cruelty. God gave us the gift of free will, and we cannot blame God for the way we use it. The Holocaust challenges humanity not God.
2. God cried alongside the Jewish people.
A rabbi named Kalonymous Shapiro was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1941-1943. He wrote a journal in the evenings, and buried it shortly before he was deported to a death camp. In it he records the his mounting losses.
He describes his family being taken away, his community, his neighbors. His pain reaches a peak as he writes of God crying in the heavens, with His tears carrying such power that if one of them were to escape from heaven to earth, it would destroy the world.
3. Never Again
It is hard to escape the connection between the Holocaust and founding of the state of Israel. The war ended in 1945, and Israel was founded in 1948. Yes, Israel existed during the age of the Bible, and modern Zionist movement started in the 1880s.
Yet, for those survived, Israel became a refuge of hope amidst despair, life amidst death. Israel reminds the world of the Jewish people’s will to live, and its strength declares that genocide can never happen again.
4. The best answer we give is the way we live
After the Holocaust, some survivors felt inconsolable pain. They had lost their families, their hopes, their dreams. They could no go on. Others, however, felt a stronger imperative to live. The only way to challenge the horror they experienced was to live with greater fervor and higher ideals. In the face of death, they sought to bring the Jewish community back to life.
Perhaps they took guidance from a story of the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses.
As he began looking through the rubble, he found bits and pieces of wood and metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces.
Rabbi Nachman said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”