When I arrived in Westport twenty five years ago I was greeted by Rabbi Orkand who had been here for two years, and he said, with a smile, “I’m a Unitarian, too.” I knew, of course, that he meant ‘unitarian’ with a small ‘u.’ But he was affirming our shared theological or religious heritage; not only do we share the affirmation that God is One (as opposed to the idea of the Trinity) but we share the idea that religion is ultimately a personal matter and therefore it is an ever-evolving process for each of us.
We share the notion that a good, open and honest discussion, including disagreements over the meanings of the stories in the Bible; differing interpretations need not threaten a relationship – indeed, that kind of sharing is what deepens a relationship.
In that spirit Bob and I have met for lunch Fridays for over twenty years, meeting with three other clergy who share our appreciation for the opportunity to discuss our work as well as our personal lives – those discussions and respectful disagreements help us in our search for meaning and direction in our personal lives and in the work we share.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year and the Day of Atonement, provide a good opportunity to remind ourselves of our close connection to Judaism, most especially the Reform movement, and to ask what it means to say ‘God is One.’
The sermon title, ‘how the temple gets destroyed,’ comes from a Talmudic story that takes place in the year 66 A. D.—four years before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.
The story says that one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem decided to give a party, and he sent out invitations to all the prominent people in the City.
One of the invitations was intended for a man named Kompsa but was mistakenly delivered to a man with a similar name: Barkompsa.
Barkompsa, as it turned out, was not only the wrong person but he was a man vehemently hated by the host of the party. Barkompsa, fully aware of the animosity, was of course surprised to get the invitation. But he took it as an opportunity, perhaps, to heal old wounds—a Yom Kippur opportunity. It was also a chance to hob-knob with the Jerusalem’s elite.
When Barkompsa arrived at the party the host was outraged and ordered him to leave immediately. Barkompsa pleaded with the host and even offered money to allow him to stay so as to avoid the humiliation of being thrown out of the party in front of the City’s leading rabbis and most influential citizens.
The host insisted that he leave, and had him unceremoniously thrown out. Barkompsa, humiliated and outraged, was driven to bring his revenge on the host and those who stood by and watched. Barkompsa went to the Roman authorities and he concocted a story, telling them that the host and the rabbis did not accept Roman law, and were plotting a rebellion against the Romans.
The Roman governor believed Barkompsa’s story and thus began the war which ultimately led the destruction of the Jews of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A. D.
Commenting on the essential idea of the High Holy Days as a time of beginning again, Rabbi Chayyim Bialik says, “Every renewal is nothing less than a return to first principles.”
What are the ‘first principles’ in this story? (The word Talmud means learning or instruction, from the verb ‘to learn.’)
What do we learn from the Talmudic story of Barkompsa and the destruction of the temple? While it has a connection to an actual historical event, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., it is rooted in deep psychological and spiritual truth: metaphorically, the temple is the human mind and it is destroyed by hatred, resentment and the inability to forgive.
There was, of course, an actual temple in Jerusalem, the Western wall of which stands as holy ground today. I’m thinking of the temple as the essence of what it means to be human; the foundation stones of that temple have to do with dignity, compassion, empathy, integrity – what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’
The temple can only be preserved by a willingness to forego the dark impulses, like hatred, prejudice, anger, fear and revenge – impulses which inflict damage and do harm to the temple, the soul, if you will…the essence of what a person is, ultimately.
That’s why Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was invented. It is very basic, very human, very important.
In the Jewish celebration of the High Holy Days there is a retelling of two famous and somewhat troubling or challenging Biblical stories: the binding of Isaac, when Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his son; and the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet.
The first story says that Abraham bound his son Isaac, laid him on an altar in the wilderness, raised his hand which held the knife and God spoke saying, “Don’t do it.”
While Abraham is honored for his willingness to do anything God told him to do, my interpretation of this story is that something in Abraham (in each of us) prevented him from carrying out this terrible deed. It is symbolic of our human evolution, moving through early stages of our development that allowed human sacrifice on an altar to please some imagined gods.
Something in Abraham prevented him from killing his son. Whatever that voice in him was, it is part of the basic structure of ‘the temple.’
In the story of Jonah, God speaks again, instructing Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the inhabitants to repent, to change their ways, lest God destroy the City.
Jonah buys a ticket on a boat bound for Tarshish, which is the opposite direction from Nineveh; he’s not interested in the assignment, since he believes God should destroy the City since it is, in his view, sin city.
You know what happens: God sends a big storm to threaten the ship on which Jonah is running away. Jonah admits to the captain that he is ‘to blame,’ and tells the captain to throw him overboard, but the captain says, “We can’t do that! You’re a human being!” God makes the storm even greater and the captain gives in, throws Jonah overboard and God sends a big fish to swallow him and Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish, wishing he had done what God told him to do.
They have another conversation. Jonah prays: “I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?” (Notice the reference to the ‘temple of holiness.’ It’s as if he asked, “How can I look at myself through Your eyes?”)
Jonah promises to do the right thing, so God tells the fish to vomit him onto the shore of Nineveh, then repeats his instructions.
Jonah’s sermon to the people of Nineveh gets right to the point: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” It’s a short but effective sermon! It got through to the king who ‘arose from his throne, removed his robe and covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes,’ and he told the people to do likewise and Nineveh was saved.
The story ends with Jonah pouting, disappointed that God didn’t destroy sin city. Jonah favored justice over compassion.
Lincoln’s famous line: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It’s a paraphrase of Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”
The stories of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and Jonah’s turning his back on compassion, are about us, of course; they are about our ability to change — what some call repentance.
The High Holy Days are all about preserving the Temple and a reminder of ‘what destroys the temple.’
The story of Barkompsa is a good example: the host of the party should have apologized for the mistake that was made in his name, inviting Barkompsa to the party, and Barkompsa should have left quietly. Both of them failed and an innocent mistake and the anger and revenge that followed ultimately led to ‘the destruction of the Temple.’
God is the Oneness of all that is; discovered in all aspects of Nature, including human nature. Each of us goes through our own evolution regarding the question of God, so when my Rabbi friend and I agree that ‘God is One,’ we’re essentially locating God within the human heart and mind…the holy Temple
The early ideas of God or the gods emerged out of the human experience and those ideas have evolved; they have evolved collectively and are still evolving, very much in early stages where many say that God is a separate entity from us..
As we celebrate this new year, ours and that of our Jewish friends, we’re reminded of Rabbi Chayyim Bialik’s assertion: “Every renewal is nothing less than a return to first principles.”
May we look again at the basic principles of our reason for being as a religious congregation and the basic principles of what it means for us, for you, and for me, to be engaged in this sacred process we call ‘living,’ and may we be blessed by our ability to change, to grow, to forgive and to continue our own evolution.