This sermon was delivered at Mishkan’s Friday Night Shabbat service on March 29th. You can watch it on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on the latest episode of the Contact Chai podcast.

This week we open up the Torah and read a fairly typical parasha for the book of Leviticus. “And God said to Moses, ‘Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.’

Rabbi Aviva Gottlieb Zorenberg’s book on Leviticus is called “The Hidden Order of Intimacy,” referring to the fact that in Biblical Judaism, sacrifice was the primary way of building intimacy with the divine. A sacrifice is called a Korban, from the same Hebrew root at KaRoV, meaning closeness, intimacy. And that intimacy is born of the human need for expressing gratitude and to make atonement, to mark transitions from a state of ritual impurity to purity, from a state of sickness to health, or a state of exile to being welcomed back into the community, to pay taxes,  to support the community… and the Torah provided very detailed instructions for the priests to fulfill all these needs for the people in the ancient world. People would bring their pain, sorrow, gratitude, taxes, new fruit, new grain, new children, to the Priests, and the Priests knew just what to do to propitiate God on their behalf, to build a sense of closeness and connection with the divine.

But more than once, the story came to a screeching halt. In 586 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and the altar where these sacrifices took place, and of course in the year 70 CE the Romans did the same thing, decimating the central Jewish way of connecting with the divine. We rebuilt after the Babylonians but there was a particular finality to the destruction wrought by the Romans. By all accounts, our religion and our people should have died with the death of those rituals. 

But we’re still here, we’re still reading the story of these rituals, we still read the Book of Leviticus without practicing almost anything in it. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented that unlike many ancient societies in which, when faced with an existential crisis or threat, those ancient societies turned even more to propitiating the Gods, making sacrifices, Judaism did the opposite. Instead of focusing on how to keep telling the same story of how closeness with God is achieved, our ancient rabbis focused instead on finding substitutes for sacrifice, planning for a worst-case-scenario future in which the thing that was central to their life, might be gone, again, this time permanently. They needed to imagine a future that wasn’t reliant on a single place or edifice to survive. 

Here are six of the substitutes for sacrifice that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud identified: Gemilut chassadim, acts of kindness. In the Talmud Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai comforts Rabbi Joshua, who wonders how Israel would atone for our sins without sacrifices, and says: “My son, we have another atonement as effective as this: acts of kindness,” and then he cites the prophet Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire kindness and not sacrifice.’” – Avot deRabbi Natan 8

Another equal substitute for sacrifice is Torah study. The Sages interpreted the Prophet Malachi’s words, “In every place offerings are presented to My name,” (Malachi 1:11) to refer to scholars who study the laws of sacrifice (Menachot 110a). And they wrote, again in the Talmud: “One who recites the order of sacrifices is as if he had brought them.” – Taanit 27b

Another substitute is prayer, what we are doing here tonight, and do three times a day, corresponding to the three times a day they offered sacrifices. Again, the Prophet Hosea said, “Take words with you and return to the Lord . . . We will offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls” (Hos. 14:2-3), implying that words could take the place of sacrifice. “He who prays in the house of prayer is as if he brought a pure oblation.” writes the Yerushlami, Perek 5 Halachah 1

Yet another substitute for ancient sacrifice is teshuvah, making amends, changing behavior for the better. Psalm 51:19 says “the sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit.” From this the Sages inferred that “if a person makes teshuvah/changes their behavior it is accounted to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem and built the Temple and the altar and offered on it all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:2).

A fifth substitute is fasting. Since going without food diminished a person’s fat and blood, it counted as a substitute for the fat and blood of a sacrifice (Brachot 17a).

A sixth substitute is hospitality. In the Talmud in Brachot it says, “As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a person’s table atones for him” (Brachot 55a). And so on.

What the rabbis were doing was writing a new story. The rabbis who survived and lived in the shadow of the Roman destruction could no longer go to the Temple– after the Bar Kochva revolt in close to 70 years after the Temple’s destruction, Jews were not even allowed into Jerusalem. They had inherited a story that had crashed, that was no longer going to serve them. Rabbi Sacks writes, “What is striking in hindsight is how, rather than clinging obsessively to the past, leaders like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai thought forward to a worst-case-scenario future. The great question raised by parshat Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not “Why were sacrifices commanded in the first place?” but rather, “Given how central they were to the religious life of Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?”

The short answer is that overwhelmingly the Prophets, the Sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realized that sacrifices were symbolic embodiments of processes of mind, heart, and deed– that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engaging in the service of God by prayer or making financial sacrifice by giving charity, creating sacred fellowship with hospitality, and so on.” The structures to make these communal and personal acts of divine closeness didn’t have to be contained in a central place, could be built anywhere, and would sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions.

He writes, “Most of the world’s greatest civilisations have all, in time, become extinct while Judaism has always survived.” Maybe it was Divine Providence, but more likely, it “was the foresight of people like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who resisted cognitive breakdown, did not seek refuge in the irrational, and created solutions today for the problems of tomorrow and quietly built the Jewish future.”

And lest we think that creativity and brazen re-interpretation of the tradition was just inevitable, because after all, here we are… let me remind you of some other ways this could have gone. At the time of the rabbis who re-invented our tradition there were also Zealots who were committed to fighting the Romans til the last Jewish soldier was felled. They’re not around anymore. There were the Karites, who resisted re-interpreting anything in the Torah and continued to take it all as God’s literal word. Not many of them around anymore either. There were the people who saw the Roman defeat of the Jews as evidence enough that God didn’t love us anymore, and just assimilated into Roman culture, gave up on Judaism. And of course in addition to Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, there were other leaders reinterpreting the old stories happening around that time too, creating “New Testaments,” on top of the old one.  

I want to explore what this looks like for us today. If you joined us on Saturday night for the zany raucous holiday of Purim, if you made it through our hilarious spiel, in which I revealed my intention to not ever come back to Mishkan after my sabbatical (like ever), yet my alter-ego also staged a profane and hilarious hostile takeover when I realized what the other options were… If you made it through all of that, and you made it through the first eight chapters of the Megillah and were still in the room and somewhat sober, then you will remember what I am about to describe. 

In Chapter 9 of Megillat Esther, the Jews who have been quaking with fear at the prospect of the fulfillment of Haman’s evil decree to annihilate them all– men, women, children, babies– they are given permission to fight back… and fight back they do, first slaughtering 500 Shushanians, killing not only Haman the diabolical leader of the planned genocide against them, they then impale all 10 of his sons… then the next day they slaughter another 300 and hang the impaled bodies of Haman’s sons… then in a final act of what some would call self-defense and others would call pure, unrestrained, bloodlust revenge, the Jews slaughter 75,000 people. And then, they rest, eat, drink, and create the holiday of Purim that we will celebrate for the next 2500 years, bringing us into this very moment.

And if you were in the room, you know that before Chapter 9, we paused the revelry of the night to draw attention to what might be obvious, but is important to name anyway: this story hits too close to home this year to read it without doing something to register that we, as inheritors of this story, can’t just keep telling it, as if reality hasn’t changed, as if we aren’t bothered both by the story, and by the reality in the human psyche that this story reflects, and most important in this moment, the reality in the world that this story parallels so disturbingly. And so we read those verses in an Eicha trope– the tune normally associated with the destruction and heartbreak of the solemn fast day of Tisha B’Av, and we invited people to sit on the floor, a traditional Jewish mourning practice. I think for those of us who engaged in this ritual moment it was powerful and hard, and also helped us internalize that we don’t just inherit stories as they are written without question, or challenge, or reflection. In fact, the best part of planning holiday celebrations and ritual moments is the part where we, like our rabbis before us, ask ourselves how we adapt what we’ve inherited so we can learn the lessons we need for this moment, so that we can respond with wisdom and courage to this moment in history. We adapt our interpretations and our texts and rituals lest they lose their relevance, or become so inflexible over time that they (and we) break when pressed by the ethical demands of this moment. A mentor of mine in the for-profit sector often says to leaders weary of the need for innovation and change with the changing times, “You think change is hard? Try irrelevance.”

All of our inherited stories were written in a particular time and place. The Purim story was written in a time and place when the indignities of Jewish powerlessness were so abject that the idea of Jews attaining the social status of Queen and First Advisor to the King was hilarious to even imagine, and the idea of Jews taking violent, bloody revenge on those who wished them harm was satisfying in the way that watching Inglorious Basters was satisfying, or watching Alec Balwdin or James Austin Johnson do a Trump impression on SNL used to be satisfying. But times change– if our stories don’t change, then we’ve got a problem.

Any of you familiar with Rabbi Benay Lappe’s Crash theory, know what happens when the story we’re inherited crashes into our lived reality and it becomes impossible to intellectually or morally justify continuing to hold onto a particular story we’ve inherited. At which point we have 3 options: Option 1 is build a wall around the story: defend the story, tell yourself and everyone else we need to keep telling this story. It’s our story. If we don’t tell it, who will? If we change it, we don’t know what will happen, and that is scary. If we build a wall around our story and ourselves, we can pretend the world hasn’t changed, and keep telling the story we inherited. Option one relies heavily on nostalgia. And as they political and moral philosopher, Hanne aren’t has said, nostalgia is a tool of authoritarians. Option one lulls us into thinking we can go backward, and can be very comforting.

Option 2: walk away, walk away from the story, walk away from it all. Move to Canada. Take up a new religion. That story doesn’t work anymore. Not only is the story bad and harmful, everything about the tradition that gave birth to that story is also tainted, irreparably. The only rational solution is stop telling this the story, and find a new story. (Never mind that the new story will also at some point crash). 

And then finally, there’s Option 3: figure out how to adapt, adjust, revise, update, reboot the story so that you get the benefits of the old story, without the harm. You use old story to tell a new story. You do what the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud taught us to do 2,000 years ago.

This year our friends at the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Nate DeGroot, invited writers and rabbis to write a new and different ending for Chapter 9. Here’s what they wrote on the Chapter 9 Project website: “If we imagine the 5th Century Jews response to their almost annihilation, how would we wish that story had unfolded differently? If we apply a worldview that seeks peace, love for all humans, and recognizes every person as created in the image of God, what is the ending we and the world long for? In this moment, new endings are being called into existence. Both in the Purim story and in Israel/Palestine. Let’s Channel those stories together.”

So at IKAR in Los Angeles, our sister community, or maybe Mothership, depending on how you think about it, Rabbi Brous invited the community during Chapter 9 to hold up signs that said “Write a New Story,” and while reading the traditional Hebrew text, they shared a new version of Chapter 9, written by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, on the screen, which I’ll read to you now.

“Queen Esther, the beloved of the King, and her foster Dad, Mordechai, were now recognized as Jews by the King and the court. They were seen as worthy of respect and care. The King was ready to author a letter reversing Haman’s decree to exterminate every Jew — man, woman and child — in every province of the vast kingdom and to confiscate their property.

Esther and Mordechai sat together. They sat in silence. They sat in contemplation. Their lives and the lives of their people had been so profoundly threatened. And now, was it possible that the decree could be reversed?

Had the poison unleashed by Haman’s jealousy, pride and greed seeped into the pores of the people among whom the Jews lived? Mordechai turned to his beloved Esther and said, “Should we encourage the Jews to avenge themselves on their neighbors? Are those people our enemy? Haman and his sons were executed. They are no more. Who are our enemies? Who deserves to be the victims of our trauma?”

Esther was still. She had risked her life by pleading with the king and had brought about this incredible reversal of fate. She knew she had saved her people. But, she thought, maybe they need revenge. Maybe the threat will not disappear until the Jews are triumphant, and we slaughter them as they would have slaughtered us.

It was silent in the room.

Each one knew there was very little time to compose an edict that would reverse Haman’s edict.

The King had given Esther and Mordechai the assignment to frame the new decree. What did they need to say to the leaders and followers, the Jews and the populations of many nations that inhabited the vast empire?

Suddenly a magnificent white bird appeared. Its wings were expanded. Its feathers translucent. It filled the room with energy and light. Mordechai and Esther gasped as they gazed at the bird. They listened. After a few minutes Esther spoke.

“I know what to do. We will send a message that invites everyone in every province of this vast empire to come to a central space. A space without habitation. An open field. There they will bring shovels and begin to dig. They will create a great earthen container. Into that container they will gather all their weapons. The weapons of the leaders of the provinces, the soldiers, the police, the guardians. All those who might be tempted toward violence. Violence toward the Jews or violence by the Jews. All violent instruments – swords, knives, canon balls, anything that night harm another human being. All these weapons will be cast into this cavern. Then they will cover the huge space with earth.“

She took a long and deep breath. She glanced at Mordechai and smiled. She looked at the white bird and sighed. Mordechai said: “And dearest Esther, what do you want people to do with that space when the instruments of hatred, cruelty and war are deeply buried?”

“Ahh, that is easy,” she said. “”The people will plant trees and gardens. They will plant vegetables and fruit to nourish the poor and the vulnerable. Trees for shade and sweet fruit and nuts.”

“Oh Esther – I love this idea. And around the perimeter the people will build playgrounds for the children to play and classrooms for the children to learn the ways of peace and love.”

“Yes, dear Mordechai. We will gather the courtiers and send them out with this holy decree.”

“The King has given us his signet ring. “

And the courtiers went out in urgent haste. And the decree was proclaimed in the fortress Shushan.

The city of Shushan rang with joyous cries. La’Yehudim hayita orah v’simcha sasson v’ikar. The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor. And in every province and in every city when the king’s command and decree arrived, the Jews and their neighbors went out to find the great space to bury their arms, to plant their trees, to build their playgrounds and classrooms. True joy for all.

We turn now from the Godless carnival-like world of Purim to Passover, which comes in just three weeks. We will sit around tables and retell the story of our ancestors having been slaves in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, which actually translates not to Egypt, certainly not modern-day Egypt, but to Narrow Place. Place of construction and limitation. Construction and limitation not just of body, but of mind. The Israelites, we read in the Torah, were so oppressed they couldn’t even imagine a different ending to their story. Part of what made Moses’ job so hard was that it’s hard to inspire people unwilling or unable to imagine that the future could be different than the present. But as we know, being able to imagine a different future is the only thing that makes our survival, and our thriving, possible.

But the best part of practicing this tradition we’ve inherited is that we have the freedom to take the story, the ritual, the seder, passed down to us, and to use it to tell a new story. We all know the best seders don’t just tell the story in the book, but they open space for dreaming, imagining, and telling new stories, personal stories… imagining future stories built on the foundation of the old story, but not being limited or constrained by it. In Rabbi Steven’s words, the haggadah is a sandbox, not a blueprint: use it as the foundation to build the story you want to hear this year.

I want to invite us all as the sun begins to warm our bones, and the blossoms begin to open, and the taste of karpas, the spring green mixes with the salty tears of our past and present, and before we get to the four questions in the hagaddah, I want us to ask a foundational question: what is the story not that we have been telling, but what is the story that we need to tell, to take us into the promised land we envision and pray for. Instead of focusing on the question of “What is slavery,” in our world– surely you could spend all night on that conversation, perhaps ask, “What does the promised land look like? And what would it take to get there?”

Shabbat shalom.