Mining our Tradition for Guidance in Tough Times

Mining our Tradition for Guidance in Tough Times

There was once a man by the name of Reb Isaac ben Yekel who lived in Cracow. He lived in poverty for many years, not knowing where his next crust of bread would come from.

One night, someone came to Reb Isaac in a dream, telling him to go look for a treasure under the bridge to the royal palace in Prague. Like most of us, when he awoke he forgot about the dream. After all, who doesn’t dream of riches? But when the dream repeated itself night after night after night, he decided to set off for Prague.

When he arrived there he saw that the bridge was heavily guarded day and night. Yet every day he returned to the bridge. Finally the captain of the guards asked him, “Why do you come to the bridge every day? Are you looking for something? Are you waiting for someone?”

Reb Isaac told them about the dream that had brought him from his village far away. The captain began to laugh. “You came all this way because of a silly dream? If I had such faith in dreams, I would have picked up and gone to Cracow because someone in a dream told me to go there to dig for treasure under the stove in the home of a certain Jew. What was his name? Isaac ben Yekel, yes that was it! I can just imagine knocking on the door of every house, where half the Jews are named Isaac and the other half are named Yekel.”

Reb Isaac thanked the guard, and hurried off to return home to Cracow. Sure enough, when he shoved the iron stove out of the way and began digging at the hard dirt floor he uncovered the treasure. With the money he took care of his family’s needs and then, out of gratitude, he built a synagogue there.

I offer this tale as a reminder of why we gather together in this synagogue, on this holy day in the Jewish year.

We come together on this first day of a New Year with a lot of hope. Hope to be embraced by community. Hope to be inspired by meaningful stories and teachings. Hope to quell the anger and to dispel the despair.

And we return to dig under our own Jewish stove, to find answers in our texts and in our past. Today we will take a look under our stove, to dig into one of the most quoted and least understood of all biblical texts: the Ten Commandments.

Do you ever think about them? Are they important to you?

Can you name them?

Or are they so obvious or so unchallenging or so antiquated that they are meaningless to you?

Let me share two things you may not already know about the Ten Commandments. We don’t know that there are ten. And they are not commandments.

The Torah itself does not count them. It never evens acknowledges that there are ten of them. That accounts for the variant traditions between Jews and Christians of how to divide them.

In Hebrew we call them Aseret hadibrot, meaning, Ten Utterances. They are not mitzvot, not commandments. Dibrot comes from the same root as dvar, as in dvar Torah. Davar is a word, and a dvar Torah is a word of Torah. And these Aseret hadibrot are essential words.

I have drawn on the help of two 21st century teachers, Dr. Jeremy Benstein, Associate Director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning in Tel Aviv, and Ana Levy-Lyons, author of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments. Digging into the meaning of Aseret Hadibrot, both of these scholars interpret this fundamental Jewish text, not simply as a list of do’s and don’ts, but as the very foundation of a sustainable life and a sustainable world.

So imagine today that you are standing at Mt. Sinai. The ground is shaking, the lightning is flashing, the shofar is sounding. Hear these words again, as if you have never heard them before.

(If you’re worried that ten is a lot to cover this morning, be grateful that, as Mel Brooks pointed out, Moses started off with a third tablet, telling the people, OH HEAR ME! The lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen... (drops stone tablet) Oy. Ten! Ten commandments.)

1. I am the Lord Your God, the One who took you out of Egypt

Who knows One? Most of us don’t. What kind of instruction can we find in this statement? It doesn’t tell us to do—or not to do—anything. Among the ten utterances, this one stands alone. It is the preamble, the foundation, the essential teaching that underscores all the rest.

The most important aspect of this verse is not the beginning, but the ending: I am the One who took you out of Egypt. Not, I am God the all-powerful and all-knowing. Not, I am the Creator of the Universe. But I am the Power of justice and liberation, who took you out of Egypt.

With this first statement we draw a direct line between Egypt and Sinai. Jews cannot have one without the other. When Moses approaches Pharaoh, he asks him to “let my people go to worship in the wilderness.” Moses wants the people to have much more than physical liberation. He has a spiritual revolution in mind.

While Moses did tell the people of a Land of Milk and Honey, the first and most important stop on the journey was at Sinai, where all the people—former slaves, men and women, outsiders who were travelling along with them, elders and children, heard these very words. They learned the purpose of the Exodus. They learned the meaning of freedom. And they learned that freedom is not free of responsibility.

In the Biblical context, freedom does not mean freedom of the individual to do whatever we want. Freedom functions within community, and freedom must be shared equitably. Because God took us out of Egypt, we are not to turn around and become oppressors ourselves. Because God took us out of Egypt, we are called to be vigilant in protecting others’ freedoms.

Egypt in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, means a narrow place, As we read in Psalms, God takes us from our narrow place and brings us to a broad, open place. God gives us the possibility to expand: expand our understanding, expand our perspective, expand our compassion.

In contrast with Mitzrayim, God is an ever-expanding force for life. Because God is expansive, God cannot be contained in an idol or a word or a philosophy. And because God took us out of the narrow place of Egypt, we thrive by living our lives with awareness, with respect, and with gratitude.

In the words of Mordecai Kaplan, founding thinker of Reconstructionist Judaism: “You shall love your God intellectually, emotionally and with all your deeds. Whatever you love most in these ways is your god. For the Jewish people, the deepest love should be for freedom, justice and peace.”

2. You shall have no other gods beside me

Idolatry in itself is a kind of slavery. Idolatry is by definition limited, narrow, contained. In the children’s book, Abraham’s Search for God, Abraham is a boy who asks a lot of questions and senses that there is something more powerful than the idols his father makes. He stays out in the field so long one day that darkness falls and he sees the moon rise. He decides that the moon is more powerful than the idols and prays to the moon. Then the sun rises and seems to push the moon away, so he decides that the sun is the ruler. But then clouds cover the sun, so they must be even more powerful. The clouds are blown away by the wind. You get the picture. At the end of the story, the moon rises once again, and Abraham has a flash of insight: there is something bigger that made all of this happen.

We may not know what God is exactly, but the second utterance instructs us not to fall for the false gods.

Just as slavery reduces the human being to an object, idolatry elevates objects to gods. We begin to confuse ends and means. We might not think that we worship money, but who hasn’t made incessant work into a god? We might not think that we worship fame, but every time we post photos on Snapchat or FB, aren’t we chasing that god too?

These may seem harmless, but idols also limit the scope of our perspective, justifying our actions without regard to their impact. I didn’t abandon my child by working so much; I did it so they would have a better life. I didn’t intend to hurt my friend by sharing a funny photo of her on Instagram; I just wanted to make other people laugh. I wasn’t thinking about global warming when I cranked up the ac and kept it on even when we left the house; all I wanted was comfort. These small everyday acts do have an impact, and the choices we make reflect the gods we worship.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,

“Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something—have no doubt about that.... That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.”

If you hear nothing else this Rosh Hashanah day, contemplate this for these next ten days. Be careful what you worship for what you are worshipping we are becoming.

3. Do not take God’s name in vain

To take God’s name in vain, is to use God in an empty, useless way. It is to try to control God into doing what you want. That is the way that the ancients prayed: they bribed their gods with gifts. They used their god’s name in magical ways to bless or to curse. But the God of Moses, the God described by these ten utterances, is beyond our control. As the prophets explained, God does not need food or drink. God doesn’t even need our praises! So why try to bribe God? There is no way that humans can control God. God is most often found in those moments when we have very little control: at the birth of a child, in the kindness of a stranger, or in a sudden breakthrough to a new way of understanding.

Not only that, how can we claim to know God’s mind? Those who make political arguments by claiming that it’s God’s will are actually trying to control God too. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that this third utterance was routinely violated by Americans who claimed that slavery was God’s will. Likewise, attacks on the LGBTQ community are justified today by the claim that God abhors all forms of sexuality outside of straight marriages. Those who cite the Bible as their proof of God’s will casually forget other statements in the Bible: fundamental assertions that every human being is created in God’s image, love your neighbor as yourself and do not oppress the stranger.

No individual or group, no matter how holy, can lay exclusive claim to God. I once heard the late Bishop Tom Shaw, Episcopal Bishop of the Boston diocese, teach at an interfaith clergy gathering that we should not make our religions into idols. In other words, none of us can claim that we alone know God’s will.

And if you don’t consider yourself religious, you’re not off the hook either. We shouldn’t worship political movements or philosophies, None of us has the full truth, not our parents and not our children. Not even our sports teams. And by the way, God does not take sides in the Super Bowl. (The World Series, perhaps.)

By extension, we take God’s name in vain when we shut down possibilities for change, by saying “this is what I was brought up with,” or “this is how it’s always been” or “people will never change.” To claim to understand humanity based on our limited experience of reality is to cling to another idol. To refuse to change is to be enslaved to false gods. “Boys will be boys” is no excuse. It is irresponsible to pretend that things cannot change. It is another way we try to control God. And it just doesn’t work.

While it’s important to notice what is truly wrong with our world, injustice, inequality, corruption, and lies (we will get to these later), we bring harm by believing these evils are immutable. Despair kills hope, and it robs us of our faith in the inherent goodness of our world. If the first utterance is about liberation, then the third utterance is a reminder that God’s name should always be linked with goodness and hope.

4. Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy

Shabbat is the ultimate reminder that liberation is possible. Once a week, we pause to reignite our passion for freedom and renew our capacity for goodness. On the Sabbath we declare a moratorium on destruction as well as creation. We suspend work, not only for ourselves but for those who work for us, who enable us to rest.

Shabbat is not just day of rest for us but the world’s day of rest from us. Shabbat is a cease-fire between people and the environment. It is a day to do and to be and to think differently. It is a day devoted to non-material ends. It is a day dedicated to spirit and to community.

The best way to defy the idols of money and power is to pretend they don’t even exist for one day a week. The best way to disentangle ourselves from the lies and desecrations is, for one day a week, to simply ignore them. The best way to gain perspective on the idols we worship is to refuse to worship them for one day a week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel already in the middle of the twentieth century called attention to the oppression of work and the demands of capitalist society that plague us today. In his short poetic treatise entitled The Sabbath, which I recommend to everyone, Heschel asked:

“Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.”

Once a week, at least, we need a reminder that the world is essentially good, that liberation is always possible, and that we need to slow down and simply be part of the human community if we want to get there.

5. Honor your parents that your days may be prolonged

Several years ago, I began to look at this differently when I was teaching the Aseret hadibrot to the sixth graders. As I repeated “honor your father and your mother,” one girl looked puzzled, if not a bit annoyed. As I read her expression, I realized that she, like others in our school, had two mothers, and no father.

So we need to understand “father and mother” in a broader way that represents the experience of every child: children brought up by two moms or two dads, or by a single father or by an aunt and uncle. Our parents, then are those to whom we owe our lives, who made choices for us (for better or for worse), and who provided for us (for better and for worse).

To honor our parents is to acknowledge that we did not create ourselves. And whether we are following in our parents’ ways or whether we have abandoned them decisively, we are still the products of those who came before us. We are here because of them.

Utterance Number Five is the only one that states a reward: “that your days may be prolonged on this land that God gives you.” Honoring those who came before us not only connects us to our past; it connects us to our future, “that your days may be prolonged on this land that God gives you.” Our responsibility to our parents is a responsibility to preserve this planet for the next generation as well.

In the Talmud, the mystic known as Honi the Circle-maker came upon an old man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi looked at the man and laughed, "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied, "I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children."

To honor those who came before is also to honor those who will come after us, to remember that all generations are interconnected. To honor our parents is to honor our responsibility to the earth, knowing full well that others handed the world off to us in the best way they knew how.

So far we have looked at the first five utterances, each of them pointing us toward a more sustainable way of life, a life devoted to liberating our bodies, minds and souls, to hearing different ways of thinking, to nurturing hope and faith, to creating connections to the past and to the future, and to dedicating one day a week to cherishing these foundational ideas.

Next comes the easy list, the ones we all know, and yet we could dig deeper into each of the next five as well. I will briefly remind you of the last five. Your homework for your Rosh Hashanah gatherings, is to consider how to think about each of these more broadly as well.

6. Do not Murder.

Do not take someone’s life—unless they are coming to take yours.

In our complex world, “Do not murder” is not only a call for a personal morality but a demand that we take responsibility for the systemic violence that plagues our planet.

7. Do not commit adultery

What are the roots of adultery? What drives someone to find a new partner, even casually, thereby breaking a life-long commitment?

The desires that lead to adultery can teach us a lot about the way our society encourages us to follow any and all desires, and to dispose of what no longer serves us. We need to learn to be true and faithful, to cherish what we have, and to find pleasure in knowing that what we have is enough.

8. Do not steal

This should also be pretty straightforward. But the Rabbis specify that stealing does not apply only to property. According to some, we are stealing whenever we benefit by paying someone else unfair wages, whenever we put someone else’s life in danger for our own comfort or enjoyment. Whenever we make our relationships transactional, we have turned a human into an object. Stealing is akin to slavery, and all the aseret hadibrot are rooted in the idea that we should never enslave another human being, or treat them as a means to an end.

9. Do not testify against your fellow as a false witness

It would have been easy for the ninth utterance to be formulated like the last three: do not lie. But that’s not what it says. ”Do not testify against your fellow as a false witness” involves something greater than telling a lie. It involves fraud. This commandment demands honesty and transparency in all our dealings, from the personal to the public.

10. Do not covet anything that is your neighbor’s

You can’t legislate feelings. But coveting means more than to desire. To covet means to want something that someone else has. If I’m hungry and I want a sandwich, that is a natural appetite. If I’m not hungry and I want your sandwich, that is coveting.

This last instruction reminds us that our sins are most often committed unwittingly. Our unchecked desires actually take away our freedom to choose. Desire itself is not necessarily harmful. But blindly following desire, without forethought or restraint, turns us into slaves once again.

Today, we begin a New Year. In the hours that we spend together in prayer and contemplation, around your holiday table, and in the quiet moments of these 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur, we set aside time for our souls to be watered by the flowing streams of ancient texts and the tributaries of the generations who taught them before us.

These ten utterances, these words, are meant to be spoken. They are a spiritual gift from the Jewish people to the world. Discuss how they impact you today. Speak about them with your children. Teach them to notice the idols that occupy their minds and drive their actions. Instruct them how to be liberated from slavish desire.

And may these ancient ideas help you start this New Year with renewed purpose, restored hope, and revived faith. Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner/Rosh Hashanah 5779

Posted on September 20, 2018 .