Shabbat sermon from 1/4/14
One of my favorite comedy bits of all time is the late George Carlin’s take on the 10 commandments. In the course of the routine he explains how some of the commandments are really forbidding the same thing – for example, the prohibitions against stealing and bearing false witness, the 8th and 9th commandments respectively, are both examples of dishonest behavior, so Carlin says they should count for only 1 commandment. Likewise with the 7th commandment, לא תנאף, you shall not commit adultery, and the 10th commandment, לא תחמד אשת רעך – you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife – those are fundamentally the same, they should only count as one. So at this point he is already down to 8. As he continues to work his way through the list he explains away some of the commandments, combines others, ultimately arriving at 2 – one is do not be dishonest, and the other, do not murder. If you want to see the routine after Shabbat it is an easy thing to find on Youtube – just be warned, you do not want to watch it with children in the room, as his language can be rather salty, to say the least.
I suppose you may not be surprised to learn that the exercise of condensing biblical verses into a unified idea didn’t begin with George Carlin. Some 2 thousand years ago when the Talmudic rabbis were debating the meaning of our sacred texts they were already thinking about how one verse might stand for an entire section of the Bible, or even for the whole Torah. There is a famous debate recorded in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and a lesser known sage by the name of Ben Azzai about which single verse captures the essence of the entire Torah. Rabbi Akiva chooses a verse that many of us would choose – take a guess? You shall love your neighbor as yourself, from Leviticus 19. His sense is that in that one verse – really in that segment of a verse, just three words in the Hebrew – the entire Torah is captured. If you love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, you will follow the vast majority of the commandments by definition, you will live a life of righteousness, and you will be following God’s ways in all things.
The other rabbi, Ben Azzai, brings a very different kind of verse, that on the surface seems somewhat obscure in terms of answering the question of which verse captures the entire Torah. He says you have to look at the beginning of Genesis 5, where the following verse appears – זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of Adam’s line. It is the first verse of the chapter, and begins a long genealogical list, stating generation by generation all of Adam’s descendants and the length of their lives. How can a verse like this possibly capture the essence of the whole Torah, let alone compete with a great verse like love your neighbor as yourself? And the answer is that the verse teaches us that we are all descended from one single ancestor. That means no one can claim they are greater or more important than anyone else, and at the same time no one can they deserve more than anyone else deserves – we are all, according to Ben Azzai, truly brothers and sisters.
You may notice that both George Carlin and Rabbi Akiva approach this exercise from a legal standpoint. In Carlin’s case the question at the heart of his routine is what are the two laws in the 10 commandments that really represent all the others. And in Rabbi Akiva’s love your neighbor as yourself, his belief is that if a person observes that one law, they will automatically observe all of the other laws in the Torah. Ben Azzai takes a different approach – he is less interested in law, and more interested in a moral point- what is the verse in the Torah that teaches the greatest moral lesson? That is Ben Azzai’s question – and his answer is the one verse that teaches us we all come from the same source. What greater moral lesson could there be than understanding we are all related, we are all connected, we are all equal?
But the Torah does not only consist of legal and moral material – there is also a great deal of narrative in the Torah. And this morning I would like to propose that there is a single verse in the Torah – one verse – that captures all of the Torah’s stories. And as with Ben Azzai’s moral verse, and Rabbi Akiva’s legal verse, if you have this one narrative verse you would not need any of the other narrative sections of the Torah. The verse comes, as you may expect at this point, from this morning’s Torah portion, but before I get to it I first want to ask, what is THE central Jewish story? What is the one story we need in our faith without which Judaism couldn’t even exist? You remember the old stone arches, and the center top stone was called the what? The keystone – you remove that stone, the entire arch comes down. So what is the keystone story of Judaism?
In my mind that story has to be the Exodus narrative. The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis are wonderful, but the truth is if we didn’t have them we’d still be Jews, still be living Jewish lives, celebrating holidays, and observing the commandments. But if you take away the Exodus narrative, the story that we tell each year at our seder tables, the story that is told in this morning’s Torah portion, I don’t think Judaism could sustain itself. Almost everything that we do – all of our holidays, the celebration of Shabbat, our daily davening – is predicated on one simple yet powerful idea – we were slaves in Egypt, God took note of us there, and God brought us from slavery to freedom.
Now of course we know that is a simple telling of the story. There were trials and tribulations along the way, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, rebellions and the search for the promised land. But the reason we as a people are bound in a covenantal relationship with God is because God saw our slavery and gave us our freedom. Had that not happened, we would have remained slaves in Egypt, and all of the things that Judaism has given to the world – the Torah itself, תhe values and morals that form the foundation of western life – all of it would either not exist, or very possibly would have come from somewhere else, and from some other people.
But – ויהי בעצם היום הזה הוציא ה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים – on that very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt. That is my verse, the very last verse – the 51st! – in the 12th chapter of the book of Exodus, from this morning’s Torah portion, Bo. In a sense that one verse captures who we are by reminding us where we’ve come from. In knowing that we can understand the importance of living a Jewish life, not only in the past, but even today, when the ancient covenant still binds us, and the freedom that God granted us so long ago is still the greatest gift in our lives.