Rabbi Sessler D’Var Torah


The Burning of the Notre Dame: A Jewish Spiritual Perspective

I used to live at the very heart of the city of Paris, a mere two-minute walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was partially burnt earlier this week. Like many people, I was saddened to see this monumental structure on fire.

Reflecting upon this architectural calamity, a Talmudic story came to mind. In this story, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom our tradition attributes the authorship of the book of Zohar, says that he’s not impressed by the exquisite beauty of Roman cities, because all these cities were solely built for the sake of aesthetic and cultural gratification, and are thus devoid of any intrinsic spiritual dimension. When the Romans found out that Rabbi Shimon said this, they wanted to execute him, and thus he and his son took refuge in a cave, in which they authored the Zohar.

One day, while living in Paris, I took a relative of mine on one of these “Paris by night” boat tours. I put on the head phones, and heard the recorded voice chronicling the history of Paris. When the recording reached 1944, the narrator spoke about how when the Germans were retreating from the city, Hitler ordered the Nazi governor of Paris to burn all the bridges and all the artistic monuments, including the Louvre Museum. The Nazi governor did not execute Hitler’s order to set Paris’s exquisite monuments on fire. On the recording, the narrator exclaimed: “Just think about how much we owe one person!” – meaning – the Nazi governor of Paris who didn’t burn the city’s most exquisite sites. Repulsed, I took off the headphones. What about the fact that this very same person, the Nazi governor of Paris, also sent tens of thousands of Jews to be gassed and burnt?

As Jews, ours is not a civilization which focuses on physical structures. We don’t have majestic palaces in Israel, nor do we have imposing gigantic houses of worship. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, we are the people whose heroes are teachers (rabbis, scholars, authors, intellectuals), and whose citadels are schools (centers of advanced learning).

It was precisely after our “Notre Dame” was burnt to the ground, after the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, that our people took a spiritual quantum leap, and transformed ourselves from a territorially based faith, to a global intellectual superpower, to the people whose portable home is the Torah, to a civilization whose archimedean point is textual and abstract, rather than physical and concrete. We, as a civilization, also appreciate and marvel at the aesthetic, but we always prioritize the human over the inanimate, the heart over the stone, and the sanctity and dignity of the individual person over the idolatrous fetish of sanctifying a concrete place or a man-made structure.

May the exquisite Notre Dame be speedily repaired, and more importantly – may we each do our fair share for the repairment of our own inner soul, thereby participating in the grand cosmic endeavor of repairing this tormented and sublime world of ours, in which all-too-often we mistakenly seek ephemeral fulfillment in the external, rather than love and redemption in the internal.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Sessler

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