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 –