Why Civilisations Die
Family Edition

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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

In ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’, Rebecca Costa delivers a fascinating account of how all civilisations die. When their problems become too complex, societies reach what she calls a cognitive threshold. Take the Mayans, for example. For three and a half thousand years, they developed an extraordinary civilisation, spreading over Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize, with an estimated population of 15 million people. They were expert potters, weavers, architects, and farmers. They had a unique form of writing, an advanced mathematical system, and a water supply infrastructure involving a complex network of reservoirs, canals, dams, and levees. But between the middle of the eighth and ninth century, the entire system collapsed. Most Mayan people disappeared. Having survived for 35 centuries, Mayan civilisation failed, and became extinct.

Rebecca Costa’s argument is that every civilisation reaches a point where their problems became too complicated for the people of that time and place to solve. There is cognitive overload, and systems break down. It can happen to any civilisation. It may, she says, be happening to ours. The first sign of breakdown is gridlock. Instead of dealing with their overwhelming problems, people continue as usual and pass their problems on to the next generation. The second sign is a retreat into irrationality. Since people can no longer cope with the facts, they seek religious consolations. Unable to solve their problems rationally, the Mayans took to offering human sacrifices to their gods. 

This makes the case of the Jewish people fascinating. They faced two centuries of crisis under Roman rule and were hopelessly factionalised. With their Temple destroyed, korbanot were no longer an option. But unlike the Mayans and many others, they did not focus obsessively on sacrifices. The Sages realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart, and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God through Torah study, engage in God’s service through prayer, make financial sacrifices through charity, create sacred fellowship through hospitality, and so on.

The great question raised by Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not “Why were korbanot needed 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 Jews did not abandon the past. We still constantly refer to the sacrifices in our prayers. But they did not cling to the past either. They looked to the future and created institutions like the synagogue, house of study, and school. These could be built anywhere and would sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions.

That is no small achievement. The world’s greatest civilisations have all, in time, become extinct, while Judaism has always survived. In one sense, that was surely Divine Providence. But in another, it was the foresight of people like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who resisted cognitive breakdown, created solutions today for the problems of tomorrow, did not seek refuge in the irrational, and quietly built the Jewish future.

This is a lesson for the Jewish people today: Plan generations ahead. Think at least 25 years into the future. Imagine worst-case scenarios. Ask “What we would do, if…” What saved the Jewish people was their ability, despite their deep and abiding faith, to retain rational thought, and despite their loyalty to the past, to keep planning for the future.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. In the absence of the Mishkan and korbanot (offerings), what are the modern equivalents of making a ‘sacrifice’ for our unintentional wrongdoings?
  2. In what ways do consequences educate or prevent future mistakes in our lives, and in our community?
  3. Think of other times that people brought korbanot in the Tanach. What kinds of emotions were they trying to communicate to Hashem? 
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Parsha in Passing

The Kohanim were responsible for bringing the korbanot in the Mishkan, so in this week’s parsha we read of the instructions that God asked Moshe to pass along to Aharon and his sons.

 The Mizbeach’s fire must constantly burn. The Kohanim can eat the meat from the chattat and ashem korbanot and the remaining portion of the korban minchah

The korban shelamim is eaten by the person who brought it, except for certain parts which are also allocated to the Kohen. The ‘sacred’ meat from the korbanot must be eaten by ritually pure individuals in the designated holy area and within the allotted time frame. 

After these instructions are given, Aharon and his sons are told to stay within the Mishkan area for seven days, during time which Moshe officially anoints them into the priesthood.

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Parsha Principles

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Acts of Kindness: In deeds so kind and hearts so vast, we mirror virtues of the past.

Tefillah: With words that soar and hearts that plead, our prayers ascend, our souls they feed.

Teshuvah: Turn back, reflect, renew, and then, teshuvah brings us home again.

Fasting: A fast from dawn till nightfall comes reminds us that we’re truly one.

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Parsha Practical

Rabbi Sacks brings six modern manifestations of korbanot that the Jewish people continue practising today. Acts of Kindness, Torah Study, Prayer, Hospitality, Tzedakah, and Fasting. Interestingly enough, we probably don’t even realise how often we engage in these “modern-day korbanot” because they are so much a part of oour everyday life and annual rituals. 

When you consider the role of korbanot during the times of the Beit Hamikdash, this makes a lot of sense. They, too, were integrated into the day-to-day lives of the Jewish people. But what is left for us to do if we’ve already “mastered” the ways to bring modern-day korbanot? Be intentional. Being intentional about our modern-day “korbanot” transforms routine into meaningful practice, connecting us to our history, community, and values. This mindfulness elevates our actions, making deliberate choices reflecting our commitment to a purposeful life. Instead of routinely saying the morning blessings while half-thinking about your to-do list, try picking one bracha to focus on. Ask yourself what stands out about a certain line and why it feels important to you to say it. 

Or, taking the example of teshuvah, how can you find a way to make right something you did wrong in a more committed and meaningful way? Beyond just saying sorry, what can you do to continue the repairing process with those around you?

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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Mitzvot, Not Korbanot”. This is a unique version of charades that focuses on the six modern practices that serve as “replacements” for traditional korbanot: Acts of Kindness, Torah Study, Prayer, Charity, Fasting, and Hospitality. Each player will take turns silently acting out various examples related to these categories. The catch? No sounds or words are allowed! The rest of the family simply guess what the “actor” is portraying. Some examples might include “davening Shemoneh Esrei” for prayer, or “fasting on Yom Kippur.” 

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Parsha Philosophy

All ancient civilisations have died. Except one. When we examine why the Jewish people have survived, it seems the most significant strategy they used, neglected by their contemporaries, was that they didn’t cling to the past. When the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, they understood they could no longer bring korbanot, so they offered aspects of themselves through kindness, hospitality, and occasional fasting. The message is clear: Holding onto your roots while also adapting to the present is critical. The Jewish people evolved their methods of worship, demonstrating an incredible resilience and capacity for innovation.

This shift from physical sacrifices to personal and communal acts of kindness and devotion ensured that their faith and identity could survive, even flourish, under drastically changed circumstances. The ability to evolve while maintaining a connection to tradition is one of the most significant reasons why Judaism has endured when other ancient civilisations have faded away.

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Parsha Parable

It’s Kindness, Your Highness!

Once, in a land called Moav, there lived a woman named Rut. You may have heard her story many times before. Her sacrifices, loyalty, and kindness played a big part in the future of the Jewish people, so we read about her every Shavuot. After losing her husband, Rut could have married a new man in Moav, but instead she chose to travel on with her mother-in-law, Naomi, who had lost her whole family.

Together, the two women journeyed to Naomi’s homeland in Israel. Rut’s decision to stay by Naomi’s side meant she sacrificed her home and her people, and the land she knew, prioritising love and loyalty to Naomi over her own comfort. When they reached Betlechem, it was the time of the barley harvest. 

Rut worked hard in the fields to gather grains, ensuring she and Naomi would not go hungry. This caught the attention of Boaz, a generous landowner who admired Rut’s selflessness. To honour her actions, he made sure they were both well cared for. After some time, Boaz and Rut got married. It was a happy ending for everyone. 

The story of Ruth and Naomi is a testament to the idea that the sacrifices we make for others can pave the way for a hopeful and thriving future. Rut’s kindness and loyalty not only supported Naomi but also led to her own new beginning with Boaz. Rut went on to have a child named Oved, whose grandson, David, became the king of Israel! So Rut and her acts of kindness link directly to one of Israel’s greatest kings. In fact, every king of Israel after David Hamelech is descended from him, and from Rut too. Well, how about that?

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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Add…

…to the list of “replacement sacrifices”? Is there something else you think Jewish people do or should be doing, to continue to strengthen our community and perpetuate the Jewish future?

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Parsha Puzzle


Q. Why were korban olah and korban chattat sacrifices brought to the same part of the Mishkan?

(See below for the answer)

This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:

The olah (burnt offering) was brought by one who was guilty of sinful thoughts not acted upon, and the chattat was the sin offering for those who sinned accidentally. But no-one ever knew who had sinned, because the korban olah and korban chattat were brough to the same place, so nobody need be ashamed.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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