By the Rivers of Babylon

A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780


It’s not every day that a song attains popularity in two different years. It’s even more unusual when those two years are more than 25 centuries apart from each other.

In 1970, a Jamaican reggae group called the Melodians released a song called “By the Rivers of Babylon.”

By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat down, yeah we wept when we remembered Zion
When the wicked carried us away in captivity, required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. 

The song became a pretty big hit in Jamaica right away, and it climbed the charts around the world over the course of about ten years. Part of its appeal was the image of a group of people far from home in exile (that is to say, “By the rivers of Babylon”) trying to stay true to their ideals. It resonated with Jamaicans, many of whom are descended from slaves. It resonated with reggae fans and music fans all over the world. It resonated with anyone who longed for a fairer world.

That was the second time that that song had made its way into the charts, so the speak. I say “so to speak” the first time was so long ago that there were no charts.

The song “By the rivers of Babylon” is based on the Biblical Psalm 137, which opens with these words:

עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל
By the rivers of Babylon
שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃
There we sat down, and wept as we remembered Zion

The original song refers to the Babylonian exile – when the Jews were expelled from their land in the year 586. BCE. It was written by our ancestors who were far from home, mourning the loss of their homeland and their way of life. If you read it all the way through, it is a gut-wrenchingly sad poem. Despondently mournful.  But at the same time, and without even knowing it, it is the song of a people who are on the precipice of something great. A people who, out of their adversity, are poised to thrive.

Let me explain with a little history lesson:

In the seventh century BCE, the kingdom of Judah rebelled against the Babylonian empire. Babylon was the superpower of the day, so it was essentially political suicide to refuse to pay them tribute. But King Zedekiah of Judah figured he had God on his side – and maybe Egypt too – so he’d be OK if he made a go of independence.

He was wrong.

The Emperor Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem with a massive army. He breached the city, conquered it, starved the people, burned the Temple to the ground, and exiled a huge portion of the population of Judah hundreds of kilometres north to his home country of Babylon, also known as “the land between the rivers.” It was an incredible tragedy – the end of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel; the end of Jewish life as our ancestors knew it.

But it was also the beginning of something new.

There, in exile by the rivers of Babylon, the Jewish people started to ask themselves a new question. And it’s a question that is captured in the song: “How can we sing God’s songs in a strange place?” It’s not a rhetorical question; it was an actual philosophical struggle that the Jewish people wrestled with in Babylon: Can you praise God outside the land of Israel? Can you be Jewish far from home?

Up until that point, most people believed that their gods were tied to certain places. Marduk was the god of Babylon and the Babylonians. Amun-Ra was worshipped in the temple of Amun-Ra in Egypt. And by the same token, the Jewish God was to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem. That was the only proper place to worship God – the book of Deuteronomy says it over and over again.

So here you are far away from Jerusalem. The Temple has been destroyed; there’s no more animal sacrifice; you can’t even get home. What options do you have? You can abandon Judaism, maybe on the assumption that God has abandoned you. (And many people surely did.) Or you can transform Judaism, take it out of the Temple. That’s the choice our ancestors made.

The way they chose to transform Judaism was by writing a book. They took all the stories that the Jewish people told about themselves: stories about Abraham the first monotheist, about Jacob the father of the people, about Moses the law giver and the Exodus from Egypt. And they put them together into a volume that they called Torah – the teaching.  And they declared that in the absence of being able to sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah should be read regularly to all the people – as a way of keeping the traditions alive; as a way of making sure that our stories would continue to be told.

They shifted the focus from Temple to Torah, from a building to a book. And in so doing, they didn’t just just save Judaism, didn’t just keep it alive. They actually transformed it and made it much stronger. Before the Babylonian exile, “Judaism“ was the agricultural practices of a few farmers who lived around Jerusalem. After the exile, after the Torah, the way was paved for Jews everywhere to have a relationship with God. For Jews everywhere to feel a sense of peoplehood. We carried our traditions around the world. They kept us uniquely connected to one another. They attracted converts, and scholars, and inspired whole schools of interpretation. They even spawned two new religions that are based on the same principles.

Judaism as we know it – the thriving, worldwide religion of study and ritual and storytelling – is the result of what happened there by the Rivers of Babylon.


These are the things I was thinking about last week when I found out that Kol Ami would soon – 2 years from now – be in the position of needing to move out of our building, out of our home. I thought to myself, how does a congregation survive a move? How do you maintain your congregational integrity? How do you manage anxieties around leaving one home and creating a new home? How do you preserve traditions and community? And then I remembered – Jewish history has been one long answer to that exact question. And it has shown over and over again that not only do we survive; we thrive.

I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely. We are not in exile. And our landlord is not the Babylonian Empire. What they actually are is a fellow Jewish community organization that has done so well that they need more space in their own building. And at the same time, we’ve grown. We’ve brought together two congregations. We’ve become busier than ever. Our school has literally doubled in size. These are very good problems to have!

And so we stand at a moment of transition. A moment of some uncertainty We don’t know exactly where we will be as a congregation two years from now, and we don’t yet know exactly how we’re going to get there.  But as we begin to look toward the next stage of our congregational life, one of the lessons that we can take away from our people’s history is that not only are moments of uncertainty surmountable, they often lead to great steps forward.

The idea that creativity can come out of uncertainty and adversity is something that we know on an individual level as well. In their book Wired to Create, psychologist Scott Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire give the example of the painter Frida Kahlo, who was considered to be one of Mexico’s preeminent artists of the 20th century. Her portraits, and her paintings of Mexico’s landscape and cultural beauty are considered to be among the country’s national treasures.

Like many great artists, Kahlo did not have an easy childhood. She was striken with polio, from which her body never fully recovered. She lived through years of chronic pain. And her suffering became an impetus for her work. She once said that despite the difficult life that she lived, “Painting completed my life.”

Kaufman and Gregoire point out in their book that this is common: “Art born of adversity is an almost universal theme in the lives of many of the world’s most eminent creative minds.”

We know this experience as well. We’ve all lived through periods of transition or loss or uncertainty. And we know that those moments can inspire us to grow – by nurturing new relationships, by learning new things, by honing new skills, by making hard choices that will ultimately move us forward. Those are the ways that we as individuals begin to move through the Rivers of Babylon toward the Promised Land.


The Torah portion for this past week addresses this issue. In it, we find the Jewish people standing on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to finally cross over. They have been wandering in the desert for 40 years, and Moses is dying.

So here again is a moment of great uncertainty. Where are we going? How will we get there? What will it be like when we get there? I imagine that in this moment, Moses wants to give the people some sense that they are going to be OK. He wants to give them something to carry with them as they move forward. So what does he do? Like our ancestors in ancient Babylon, he gives them Torah.

וַיְהִ֣י  כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את ׃
Moses wrote down this teaching (this Torah). And he said to the Levites:
לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה
Take this book, this Torah, and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant

So the priests are to take the Torah and place it next to the ark of the covenant, at the very centre of the temple. And then they are to carry the whole thing into the Promised Land together with the people.

It’s an interesting choice of gift, right? What is it about carrying the Torah that is going to be a comfort to the people as they begin their new life? I think it’s two things. First, the message that just as you carry Torah, so can they carry God and so can you carry your Jewishness with you wherever you go. The second message – ironically, as they take their first steps into the Promised Land – is that none of us ever really reach the Promised Land.

Those who have studied the Torah know that it is not the story of our people arriving in the Land of Israel. It is the story of our people moving toward the Land of Israel.  It ends just before they get there, while they are still in the wilderness.

I believe that’s quite purposeful. One of the central messages of Judaism is that we never really finish our life’s work. There is always more work to be done – Torah to be learned, relationships to be deepened, communities to build, a world to repair. In fact, that’s one of the important themes of the High Holy Days – that no matter how far we’ve come, we’re always meant to keep striving to be our best.

That means that as Jews, we’re never supposed to stay still. We’re never supposed to be satisfied that we’ve achieved all that we can. We’re never supposed to just stake our claim and build our cathedral and call it a day.

That’s why I suspect that despite all their talk about rebuilding the Temple, our ancestors had it right when they decided to stake their claim on a book instead of a building. In Judaism, what matters most isn’t building Temples. It’s not about creating the most beautiful building on top of a hill. It hasn’t been that for 2500 years, since our ancestors decided by the rivers of Babylon that that didn’t make sense to them anymore. What matters most is the way that we carry Torah with us. The way that we pass on traditions. The way we build relationships – with God and with each other. It’s about the people inside the Temple. It’s about community.

That’s the amazing thing about what Kol Ami has always been, and what Neshamah has been as well. We’re not a congregation that is dependent on a building. We never had the nicest social hall, or the biggest sanctuary, or the fanciest carpeting. Instead, we have the nicest community, and the friendliest faces, and the warmest services, and the most talented choir, and the most exciting school. And you can take that with you wherever you go.

In the book of Exodus, while the people are still in the wilderness, God commands them to build a sacred space:

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.
Build me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among you.
(Exodus 25)

The commentators are quick to point out that the Torah doesn’t say, “V’shachanti b’tochah – Build a sanctuary so that God can dwell inside it.” It says “b’tocham – so that God will dwell among the people, among you.” God’s presence is not found in a building. It’s found among the people who fill the building with prayers and hopes and joys and sorrows.

As Rabbi Harold Shulweis writes, “God is not in me, and not in you, but in the space between us.”

The Talmud tells us that whenever ten people some together to pray, God descends to be with them. Whenever two people share words of Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them. Wherever we go, wherever we pray, wherever we sing, wherever we support one another. Whenever we hear Kol Ami – the Voice of our people – we build God’s house.

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.
Build me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among you.

Right now we have some work ahead of us. We re at the beginning of a journey to find and create a holy space, to create a new home for ourselves as a congregation.

In the Torah, the building of the Mishkan is a group effort. All the people are all asked to participate in the building effort. They bring their goods, their stuff to make the actual sanctuary. They donate their talents and abilities toward its design and construction. One particularly talented artisan named Betzalel becomes the archetype for all Jewish artisanship because of his extraordinary contribution to the Mishkan.

This is going to be that kind of project for us as well. We’re going to need all hands on deck – to help us find our new space and secure it. To negotiate leases, and raise funds, and design rooms, to dream about what our new home will look like and then bring it to fruition.

If you have a talent to give, please come and talk to us about how you can get involved.

What an exciting opportunity we have right now, to turn a dream into a reality – to design and construct and actualize the next stage of our congregation’s journey.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once sitting with his students and they asked him: Rebbe, where does God live? It’s a question that seemingly has no answer. After all, God has no body. God doesn’t need a house. God doesn’t live anywhere. But the Rebbe thought about it for a moment and then answered: “God lives wherever we let God in.”

As we walk through the world this year, may we be aware of the holiness that surrounds us at all times.

May we be thankful for this holy community that supports us and accompanies us no matter where we are – from the Rivers of Babylon to the Bathurst Corridor, from 36 Atkinson to the place that we will someday call home.

May we open our hearts to one another, building connections and sharing of ourselves.

And may we find God in the space between us.


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