Sermon delivered August 31, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
My father read the title for tonight’s sermon in the Bulletin: “The Most Important Jew Who Ever Lived.” He immediately emailed to say how honored he was that I planned to deliver a sermon about him. Now, my dad’s a great guy and all. Just this week, I called especially to thank him. You see, I had been asked to sign a legal document, and had declined. Most people would have seen the matter as innocent, which it basically was, and would have signed. I, on the other hand, like Griffin, was raised by a father who is, shall we say, a rather punctilious attorney. I thanked my dad for having taught me well. He is not, however, the most important Jew who ever lived.
In fact, I don’t know the name of that singularly great man in our history. I do know what he did.
First, though, may I offer some historical context.
In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judea and destroyed the great Temple in Jerusalem. Conquest and destruction were rather common in the ancient world. One after another, peoples were vanquished; their Temples, overthrown. Time and again, the results were predictable: The conquered people assimilated into those who had defeated them. They began to worship the gods of those who had overrun them. The worship of their previous gods would cease.
Where are the Canaanites today? The Philistines? The Jubusites or Perizzites, the Ammonites or Moabites, all have disappeared. And yet all were significant kingdoms, with gods of their own, in the days of the Bible.
And what of the greatest of all ancient civilizations? Citizens of Egypt today see themselves as Arab, by nationality and by ethnicity, meaning that their identity springs from the Arabian peninsula, not from the amazingly advanced culture that existed 5000 years ago in their own land. They worship Allah, an Arabic name for the one God worshiped by billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews around the globe. Egyptian children may study about the gods for whose glory Pharaohs and their servants built magnificent tombs, even pyramids and the sphinx. But nobody worships even those once-all-powerful gods.
All of us know the names of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. But who today serves Zeus or Jupiter, Aphrodite or Venus? Our God is worshiped in Athens and in Rome, in Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, as in other houses of worship. Even fair Babylon, a magnificently beautiful ancient city, with an advanced civilization and gods of its own, is no more, replaced by Baghdad, and again, our God, worshiped as Allah.
Make no mistake: Ancient Israel and the Kingdom of Judea paled in comparison to these other empires of old. Our ancestors were entirely in control of their own destiny, truly independent and dominant, for less than two generations, the reigns of David and Solomon, at the most. Egypt and Babylon were dominant for centuries, if not a millennium, as were Greece and Rome later. And yet, our God is today worshiped by billions, and their gods are gods no more.
By all rights, when the Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., the people of Israel should have ceased to exist. If history’s trends held true, our God ought to have been dethroned. The Children of Israel, exiled to Babylon, would have begun worshiping the gods of the Babylonians, forgetting their earlier ways. Hebrew might have gone the way of Ugaritic and Sumerian, studied only by scholars examining arcane academic archeology and the like.
The ways of history were not random. They make sense. In the ancient mind, military conflict was understood as an Earthly reflection of a greater battle between the gods of the peoples who were at war. The gods of the victors were understood to be greater than the God or gods of the vanquished. Who would not want to be part of the victorious nation? Who would not want to worship the greater gods?
At least that’s what the Babylonians thought. Their king, Nebuchadnezzar, chose to bring all the leaders and intelligentsia of Judea to Babylon. There, he thought, they would assimilate, become Babylonians, and contribute to the greater glory of Babylon. Surely, being at the top of Israelite society, they would want to become leading citizens of Babylonia. What do elites value more than being elite? Certainly, they would worship Babylonian gods.
Enter the most important Jew who ever lived. He was a prophet. Among his fellow Israelites, banished to Babylon, he spoke God’s message.
He told them: Our God is greater than the false gods of Babylon.
He interpreted: We have been conquered because God is angry at us. We have been unfaithful. We have worshiped other gods. Even when we have carried out our worship with precision, we have committed grave errors of ethics. Immorality is not overridden by piety. God has sent Nebuchadnezzar to conquer us. Only God is God.
He urged: Repent! Resume faithful service to God, in ethics and morals and in ritual practice.
He prophesied: Though God has punished us, as a parent rebukes a child, God will take us back in love. Babylon will not rule forever. God, on the other hand, is sovereign for all eternity. God’s love is limitless. To use the language of parents to children, the prophet basically said: God may not like us very much right now, but God will always love us very much.
He promised: We will return to Jerusalem in glory. We shall rebuild the Temple. God will be worshiped, long after the Babylonian idols are long-since forgotten.
So what did these elite Israelites do? They did not conform to the wishes and intentions of Nebuchadnezzar. They did not convert. Our ancestors valued something else above being elite. The prophet gave them the faith and the hope that they needed to remain loyal to the one, true God. Almost single-handedly, the prophet turned history on its head. The Children of Israel lay down by the waters of Babylon, we are told, and they wept for Jerusalem. They never gave up hope of rebuilding the Temple. The worship of the one God never ceased.
So who was this great prophet, the most important Jew who ever lived? We do not know his name. His writings are found in the Book of Isaiah, beginning in Chapter 40. Scholars and sages, going back centuries, have recognized that the author of these latter chapters of Isaiah is not the same prophet who wrote the first thirty-nine. They prophecy in different eras, under divergent circumstances, and with differing themes. We call him “Deutero-Isaiah,” meaning “the second Isaiah,” only because we have no other, better name by which to identify him.
Tomorrow, Griffin will read the words of Deutero-Isaiah. At this season, every year, for seven weeks, we read his prophecy. Almost six weeks ago, we observed Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which that terrible destruction took place, in 586 B.C.E. Traditional Jews mark that day with abject mourning. Then, for seven weeks, we seek comfort in the words of the prophet, who saved our people, and kept the worship of our God alive, for all humanity. Why was he the greatest Jew who ever lived? Without this anonymous prophet, none of the billions who worship the one God today would have ever learned of the Holy One of Israel, for he would have gone the way of Zeus and Ishtar and Ba’al.
Perhaps a lesson is to be learned from our not knowing this great prophet’s name. We are taught humility and purpose. What we do is so much more important than who we are. The prophet changed the world; he saved a people and rescued the worship of God. His work, his teaching, makes a tremendous difference here on Earth, some two and half millennia after his death and ultimate anonymity.
The prophet taught: “Though the mountains be laid low, and the valleys raised high, my love will never depart from the children of Israel.”
Let us live with faith: God is always by our side.
Let us live with hope: Even when times are very bad, as they were for our ancestors in exile, God is with us.
Let us live with purpose: Learning from the prophet’s example, we may affirm that what we do is so much more important than who we are. Each of us, in our own small way, can make the world a better place. Even when everybody who knew us has died, thousands of years have passed, and our names are known no more, our hearts and our souls will be known to the one God, living for all eternity.