Rosh Hashanah sermon

A New Look At Old Commandments

I remember the discomfort I first felt, when I was told there was a stained glass window of Moses holding the Ten Commandments in our building.  These days it is somewhat out of the way, hidden from direct view, but long-time IHC’ers will recall that it once adorned the front of the old building downtown, placed there and dedicated by none other than Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise himself, the founder of Reform Judaism.

I am certain that the reason this was not viewed as a complete travesty, not to mention idolatry, is that it really isn’t.  Nothing about the image suggests Moses is the artist’s subject.  I have several art pieces in my office of this first Israelite prophet, and in every one, the eye is clearly drawn to the two tablets of stone Moses holds in his hands.  Some of you will recognize one small statue I inherited that depicts Moses actually holding the tablets above his head, as if threatening the Israelites with their destruction.

While there is some debate about how much of the Torah was written by, or inspired by Moses, with regard to the Ten Commandments the Torah is perfectly clear.  These central Jewish values were given at Mount Sinai; they were etched by the hand of God, according to the text, and formed the basis for all the law, all the ritual, all of what would be become known as the Oral Torah for generations to come.

These ideas are the very heartbeat of Judaism, and have been since the beginning.  And today is Rosh Hashanah, our time to stop and to evaluate our world, and the contributions we make to it.  Recently I was asked – exactly how many biblical signs of the end of times have come to pass this year?  That was meant as a joke, but it seems that many of us are worried that society has lost its moral bearings.   We no longer value the Ten Commandments; we have lost the place they once held in our faith.  We no longer look up at the stained glass window and feel inspired by those words.  In fact, we either take them for granted or we don’t think of them at all.

Perhaps we need an even larger image in our building of Moses holding the stones aloft.  In most Jewish depictions of Moses, one hand holds the commandments and the other points towards the heavens.  Know these ideas, he says, and come to know God.

This year has been incredibly difficult.  Generations past have faced existential threats to the Jewish people and to democracy.  What we have confronted for the past several years is the defining challenge of this generation, potentially more devastating that anything we’ve seen before. Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article attempting to summarize the last eighteen months.  The title was, “What Went Wrong?”  None would argue the fact that we face serious global, local, and personal challenges right now.  It will take all of us working together to find solutions.  We need a collective turning, a collective teshuvah, a collective refocusing and redoubling of our efforts to get back to our moral center.

We are like the nascent Israelite tribes, taking their first tentative steps away from Mount Sinai.  The vast desert lay before them, and the only thing that stood between them and the memory of oppression was the promise of something better, a belief that a society could be built to reflect the best in humanity rather than the worst.  We are crossing that same desert now;
all we know is that we do not wish to turn back the way we came.  When we reach the end of the Torah reading cycle in a few weeks, at Simchat Torah, we roll back the book and begin reading again.  We never reach the Promised Land, it remains the goal that stretches out before us.  And yet each year, we have got to believe we can move just a little closer, make this world a bit better than we found it.  A little more fair, a little more compassionate, a little more just.

And like the Israelites, we have been given this set of stone tablets, a few simple words etched into the surface. Written in stone means eternal, and what makes the words eternal is that they mean something in every age and for all people.  What do these words have to offer us today?  We remove the cover from the Ark, and gaze at the tablets of stone we carry before us.

            I am Adonai your God, who led you out of Egypt to be your God.

Remember Egypt.  Remember the power it took to free the slaves. We are just like the ancient Israelites.  Without constant reminders, we forget, fear takes over, we lose faith.

This first commandment reminded our ancestors, just as it reminds us today what God is, and by extension what God is not.  God does not bring luck or good fortune.  God did not cause you to get that promotion, or find that special someone, win that game, or pass that test.  What we call God transcends all of these minutiae.  God is your strength and resolve, your hope and determination. God alleviates fear; God is present when we reach out to one another. God caused Moses to approach Pharaoh and demand the release of his people from slavery.  God wants us to follow by example.  God is compassion and love, God is liberation and dignity.  God is the power which led us out of Egypt.  Don’t mistake God for anything else.

The first commandment, spoken at Sinai and into our own ears on this day, is a response to a critical aspect of teshuvah, “What is it that I worship above all else?  Where are my priorities this year? What motivates me to do the things I do?  What drives me to make things better, to contribute, seek solutions, and persevere?”  Idolatry comes in many forms.  Acknowledging, “I am Adonai your God,” means recognizing when we have placed something else at the top of our pyramid.  It means admitting when we look the other way when we see moral corruption, bias or discrimination because we have made our own safety and comfort into an idol, and value that comfortable place above all else.
It means recognizing when we willingly work so many late hours that we do not have time and energy left for our children, our passion project, our friends, our spouse – we have made work into our idol.  When we seek power and advancement over human decency, equality and fairness, we have made power into an idol.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes that the hard part is not only recognizing that God is God, its recognizing that we’re not.  “I am Adonai your God,” reminds us we are a part of something bigger.  It reminds us of the forgotten idealism of youth, the ethics of a moral universe, the teachings of our ancestors –God begins with this reminder, “I am that power that led you out of Egypt.”

And God speaks a second command.  “You shall have no other gods before Me.” What is it that has pulled us away from the path we had hoped to be on?  How have we gone so far astray?  How did we get where we find ourselves now?  On Rosh Hashanah if no other day, let us be honest with ourselves about those things we have made into gods – partisanship, power, laziness, money.

Do not use God’s name in vain.

This is another commandment easily misunderstood, and often dismissed as no longer relevant to our lives.  This verse isn’t warning us of some supernatural power of letters strung together, but rather of the power we abuse when we make promises or commitments “in vain.”  Torah is not concerned with certain words we call “swear” words (you know the ones).  Torah is warning us about the dangers of pledges and promises made deceptively.  Honesty is the first building block of a just society.

A better society is going to be built on trust, says the Torah.  With trust, families are strong; organizations, businesses, synagogues, and governments all can thrive.  In the ancient world, economies ran on simple trust established between buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers.  To maintain that trust, we have to know where we stand with one another.

We have learned this past year, that trust is very easily broken, and very difficult to earn back.  Lying comes so easily.  Trust in our leaders, trust in a free press, and trust in one another is simply too important to rupture.

At the end of our lives, however far away that day may be, we will only hold ourselves accountable for every dishonesty, large or small, regardless of how few, or how many were hurt by them.

Keep your priorities straight, carry your integrity with pride.  Can we even imagine the changes our culture would undergo, if our highest ideals were modeled on the obligations we owed to one another? It would be transformational.  Without them, we have seen the kind of destructive forces which are so easily unleashed.  The third commandment asks us to consider when we make a commitment, hand on a bible or not, that we mean it, and that we follow through.

            Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

In a famous photograph from the late 1800’s, Jacob Riis captures an image entitled, “Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar” in which a man with a long beard full of coal dust, sits at a small table surrounded by all his worldly possessions.  He has found one relatively clean white tablecloth, and on it, he has placed a fresh loaf of braided challah.  That bread likely cost that man an entire day’s wages.

The more challenging it is to find time to sanctify life, even for a few moments, the more vital it is.  Offering a blessing is nothing more than a way to recognize the sacred in the rush of everyday living, to express gratitude and intentionality.

Setting aside Shabbat, not to mention the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a challenge every week, and every year.  Sports, schoolwork, exams, and job responsibilities are difficult to juggle, compromises become necessary.  At its core, Shabbat is about setting the pace for every other day, as Rosh Hashanah prepares us for the rest of the year.  Shabbat asks us to put our families and community first, to find work/life balance, to live intentionally with time for rest and reflection built in.  Shabbat asks us to take a moment to express our gratitude. These things are necessities, not luxuries.

Those who attend Jewish summer camp and call it their “second home” know that Shabbat is the center of Jewish time.  Shabbat at camp exists as not only a once-a-week celebration, but as that once-a-year much anticipated month – a Sabbath away from smart phones and homework and the pressures of the year.  Time to re-center, focus on friendships and not fashion, compassion and not the criticism of peer pressures.

If it is true what the Israeli poet Achad Ha’am said about Shabbat – that it has kept us strong more than we have kept it – then our lack of commitment to the idea of Shabbat, family time, down time, sacred time –will only weaken us as a people.  The Ten Commandments are much more than a polemic about how to structure society.  They show us how to appreciate one another, how to embrace our own potential and how to actually repair the world.

            Honor your parents.

Stay connected to your past, live in a way which would make your parents proud.  Remember where you came from, and upon whose shoulders you stand.  Don’t take your privilege for granted, build something with your life you can pass down to the next generation. There is no finish line. We tell the story at Passover, we accept the responsibility on Rosh Hashanah, every year. Just a few minutes ago we read from the Torah’s story of Abraham’s journey up the mountain with his son Isaac.  One puzzling question is whether or not Isaac knew what was happening, and when did he figure it out?  Many commentaries suspect that Isaac and Abraham were on the same page.

Perhaps the real test of the Akedah was Isaac’s, as he struggles to understand how to best honor his father, and also survive?  Torah tells us they walked up the mountain together, but only mentions Abraham walking down alone. We know that after this event, the project of the Jewish people is passed on to Isaac, who in turn passes it on to his son Jacob.  Perhaps Abraham has failed his test, and Isaac has passed his?  The Jewish legacy continues, after the almost fatal encounter on the mountain.  We have received it from our parents, those whose stories we continue to tell.

Jewish wisdom builds on the past, we seek understanding that only comes from becoming a student of history.  We will never solve global warming, peace in the Middle East, racial injustice, this or the next pandemic, without learning the lessons of the past.  We will never rise above and go beyond the lessons of our parents and their parents without acknowledging the roads they traveled and the lessons they learned. The Torah says, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your parents, and they will tell you…” (Deut 32:7)

These first five Commandments ask us life’s largest questions.  What is our responsibility to the past?  Do our lives reflect our true priorities?  What do we worship above all else? The second five, on the second stone tablet, are more personal.  These are the values which inform our relationships with each other.  How far have we strayed from these ideals in the past year?

You shall not murder.

            This might seem to be the most obvious of the bunch.  The taking of a life is the ultimate evil one person can do to another.  There is no way to fully atone and make it right.  It’s not hard to see that violence today is present in every aspect of our society and our world. Anger and frustration are spilling over and seeping out from every seam. It’s not just physical violence and aggression, it’s verbal aggression, emotional aggression, self-righteousness, vindictiveness, condescension, and even shaming or embarrassing others.  The sages teach that embarrassing another person is akin to murder because when we embarrass someone, and we watch the blood drain from their face, we take away a small part of them.