Category Archives: Jewish thought

Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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Schwartz vs. Greenberg, or Reimagining the First Commandment

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/3/18 –

Many years ago, as a young rabbinical student, I had a job teaching in the Introduction to Judaism Program at the 92nd Street Y in New York.  The class consisted mostly of couples – one person Jewish, one person not Jewish, with the non Jewish person considering conversion.  One evening, at the end of class, a student – a young woman – asked me if I though it was possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.

After pondering the question for a moment or two I said ‘Yes, I do believe it is possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.’  Then I went on to talk with the class about Judaism’s emphasis on action – on what we do on a day to day, sometimes moment to moment basis – and its DE-emphasis on what we believe.  I said to the students ‘Our tradition will often tell us what we should be doing, but it will rarely tell us what we should be thinking.  And that is why,’ I concluded, ‘I think someone could convert without believing in God.’

The next evening the phone rang in our apartment.  It was my supervisor for the Introduction to Judaism course.  He said ‘I heard you had an interesting discussion in class last night.’  He talked the previous night’s conversation through with me, wanting to hear my perspective on what was said.  Then he said two things to me.  First, he said ‘you may be right, but you also may want to carefully consider when and how you say things like that in public, especially in a class full of people who are considering conversion.’  And the second thing he said was ‘you also may want to study the debate between Maimonides (the RambaM) and Nachmanides (the RambaN!) about the first of the 10 commandments.’

This debate is well known in rabbinic circles, going back to the early Middle Ages when Maimonides lived in the 12th century (1135 – 1204) and Nachmanides in the 13th (1194 – 1270).  And their debate, which played out on the pages of various commentaries over the years, revolved around the first of the 10 commandments, which is?  “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)  Of course the problem with this verse if you read it closely is that it does not contain a commandment.  And that is what Nahmanides pointed out.  The verse does not say, for example, ‘believe in the Lord your God.’  The other 9 all contain specific verbs that command the listener to do something, or to not do something.  Honor your father and mother!  Remember the Sabbath!  Don’t worship idols!  Don’t steal, or commit adultery, or covet!  Those are commandments, no question about it.  But “I am the Lord your God” does not fit into that category.  No question about that either.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, in a book he wrote called Sefer HaMitzvot – the Book of Commandments – lists belief in God as commandment number one, and the verse he cites as proof is the first verse of the 10 commandments we read this morning – ‘I am the Lord your God.’  Nachmanides argued that he was wrong, and that a true commandment must include a rule about behavior, about something you should or should not do, and that in some way a commandment should be measurable.  That is to say, you should be able to know if you have fulfilled it or not.  Most of Judaism works that way.  You know specifically what prayers you are supposed to recited at a given service, and you either complete them or you don’t.  You know you are supposed to eat matzah at the seder, and you even know how much you are supposed to eat, and then you either fulfill the commandment or you don’t.  You know you are not supposed to eat certain things, and you either abide by that commandment, or you violate it.  But you know whether you’ve done it or not.

Belief is something that is entirely different.  People believe in different ways, they believe different things about God, their belief about God changes over time, it waxes and wanes, sometimes it is stronger, sometimes it is weaker.  Sometimes it might not be there at all, and then it might come back.  On top of that belief is such a personal thing – I am not sure I can even describe my belief to you.  How can you regulate something like that?  How can you determine whether it is being fulfilled or not, how can you measure it?  And as the debate about the first commandment that began with Maimonides and Nachmanides continued to play out through the centuries, some Jewish philosophers began to argue that matters of belief should not be commanded at all.  That  – like I said to my group of students more than twenty years ago – being Jewish is not something that should be defined by what you think, particularly by what you believe about God, or even if you believe in God or not!   Instead it should be defined by what you do.

You may know the old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, a story I’ve told before.  Schwartz and Greenberg are old friends and they come to shul together every morning, and they sit together in the morning minyan.  They both put on tallit and tefillin, they both know the service, follow the Hebrew, and can participate.  But there is one problem.  Schwartz does not believe in God.  And every morning, Schwartz’s wife gives him a hard time.  ‘Why do you go to shul all the time?  Greenberg I can understand, Greenberg is a believer, Greenberg has faith, but you, you have no faith, so why do you go?’  And finally one day Schwartz says ‘You know, Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.’

The truth, of course, is that we all probably have a little Schwartz in us, and we all probably have a little Greenberg as well.  There may be days when we sit here with doubt in our hearts, when our faith is at a low point or maybe it is not there at all.  On those days are we any less Jewish?  And there may be other days when for one reason or another, probably for reasons we don’t even understand, our belief is stronger, and we are more sure that God exists and that God’s presence is a part of our lives.  On those days are we more Jewish?

I can only speak for myself, and I can tell you I’ve been in shul many times feeling like Greenberg, but I’ve also been here many times feeling like – well, Schwartz.  What I am grateful for either way, whether my faith that day is strong or weak, is waxing or waning, is that I am part of a tradition and community that honors that struggle, and that gives me a place to live my Jewish life with meaning every single day.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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You Can Run…

You know the second half of the phrase.  You truly can’t hide, especially from yourself.  Here is the unedited version of the Torah portion column that was published in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times.  Their editors decided to cut out the section about Dave Mason and Traffic. The song ‘Feelin’ Alright’ appeared on Traffic’s eponymously titled 1968 album.  Joe Cocker made the song famous with his hard driving version, recorded for his 1969 record ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’  The original version by Traffic is more laid back, but it still has that distinctive shuffle.  Give it a listen at this link:  Traffic/Feelin Alright.

Deception is everywhere surrounding Jacob, a virtual dance of deception from which he cannot escape.  He has been raised in a dysfunctional family, where his parents Isaac and Rebecca favor different children.  He cannot trust his brother Esau, who is his rival for affection, power, and the ever illusive birthright and blessing.  In the end, Jacob is trapped by the deception that surrounds him.  Not in the sense that he is fooled.  He is not, and in fact understands exactly what is going on around him.  But rather in the sense the he begins to engage in it, and in the process he learns something about himself:  he, too, is a master at deception.

Perhaps that is why Jacob flees from his parents’ home.  It is true – Esau is angry with him, and he has lied to his father.  But he could have worked through it with Rebecca’s help and his own cunning mind.  There is, however, one thing Jacob cannot escape in the home of his birth – himself.  He has taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and he does not like what he sees.  There is an ugliness in his soul, a growing ease with the telling of lies and a growing power to manipulate others.  He has been trapped by the continual deception of Isaac and Rebecca’s home because it has become his way of life, his method of interacting with the world.

So Jacob runs, hoping to escape the ugliness he sees in himself, wondering if he can recreate himself in a new place.  Perhaps with a new start he can become a new person, more honest, truer to himself and to God.  Some of you may remember the lyrics to the great Dave Mason song “Feelin’ Alright”: “Seems I got to have a change of scene; ‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams; Imprisoned by the way it could have been; Left here on my own or so it seems;  I got to leave before I start to scream…”

That is Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Ya’yeitzei.  Alone, wrestling with his conscious, fleeing from what he experienced as the prison of Isaac and Rebecca’s home, dreaming of things untold, looking for a better place, and a better self.  What he will learn in the course of his journey is that deception is everywhere.  Laban’s home, where he will live for the next two decades, is also a place of deceit and cunning and lies.  To survive there Jacob once again becomes the master deceiver.

So it always is.  You cannot escape from yourself.  A change of scene does not produce a change in values, personality, morals, or ethics.  That only happens with serious self-reflection, with deep and committed work of the mind and soul, with an internal battle to conquer your worst predilections.  So Jacob will ultimately wrestle the mysterious angel, at that moment finally coming to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.  Only then can he return home a new man, leaving deception behind,  finally prepared for an honest confrontation with the legacy he left behind.

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

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