Monday, January 30, 2012

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Us: Where Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow Meet

On Thursday, February 16th I will lead a day trip from the B’nai Shalom parking lot to the Discovery Museum in Times Square to see the Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times exhibit.  The exhibit features many items never before displayed. Some of them date back nearly 3000 years ago to the time of King Solomon; the youngest item in the exhibit dates from the Byzantine period, around 400 CE. Why?

Anyone who has ever visited the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem can attest to the incredible sight of the ancient parchment scrolls on display.  They raise as many questions as answers. Who wrote them? Why? What function did they serve?  How were they used? Are they personal devotional scrolls used prayer, as some scholars suggest? Could they have been for personal study? Are they something else entirely?

The answer to all these questions is surely “yes.” So many fragments, of such wide variety in style, age, and content represent a broad spectrum of ideas, hopes and purposes.  And like our Judaism today, the variations are endless, yet create a core truth which is not to be denied.

Judaism is best defined as a people, our texts, and God – meeting in the Land of Israel for all time.

On the bus in to the city (leaving promptly at 9:30 a.m.), we will study some of the texts that we will be viewing.  Once in the museum, we will compare them to the sacred versions we use in synagogue today.  What differences are there, and what similarities?

When we consider the enduring impact on Western civilization the words of our Tanakh have had, we can not help but be touched by the devotion that inspired ancient scribes to preserve these words for others to read and know.  We’ll marvel at the “non-Jewish” nature of many of them, and think about the legitimate limits of religious ideas. And we’ll sense the wonder at the deep love that subsequently stored them to last for the ages in a ceramic jar stashed in a cave high up on a cliff.  We will explore how those words united our ancient ancestors even long before the scribe in Qumran wrote them down then. And, hopefully, we will away with renewed appreciation for these immortal words, which have helped us survive the vagaries of historical homelessness for nearly two thousand years without the Land of Israel. Now that we have returned to our Land, we may also return to our Literature.

It is humbling to realize how much grandeur underlies these little scraps of parchment.  It makes me wonder: What are the acts of devotion that we produce in our day that will similarly inspire our descendants two thousand years from now?  Will it be the scholarship that we have produced? Will it be the beautiful artwork, or the inspiring literature?  Will it be something intangible?  While I do not have any absolute answers to my question, I doubt it will be any of the brick-and-mortar edifices that we have built.  Ultimately the message of these little scrolls is that their values endure.  May we be blessed to rise to the challenge they present to us.

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