I had wanted to write everything out ahead of time, which is the method of public speaking that Neil Postman had impressed upon me when I was his doctoral student, but the week was just too busy and too exhausting doing a summer session course early every morning for three hours, followed by varied and sundry other obligations and commitments. I thought I'd have time today, but my mother, who is slowly recovering from hip surgery and unable to go our by herself, needed me to go food shopping and couldn't wait, and, well, given that the Fifth Commandment says to honor your parents, it would have been hypocritical of me to say, you're just going to have to wait! So, I wound up working with notes, which is what I do when I teach, so it's not like that was a problem or anything, and certainly makes things more spontaneous and intimate.
Of course, that leaves me the task of having to write things up now if I want to share it by way of the blog. So be it! But please understand that this is now a report on what I said, sort of.
First of all, I wanted this to be more than a sermon, so I opened the service with the following:
Shabbat Shalom! I want to break with tradition tonight, and not wait until we are near the end of the service to mention the Torah portion for this Shabbat, whose name is Va'etchanan. Va'etchanan translates as, "And I beseeched," but also as, "And I prayed," and prayer is what we are about to engage in ourselves.
The parsha begins with Moses telling the Israelites how he prayed to the Lord to let him enter the Promised Land. If you think about it, the story of Moses is about a journey, beginning as the son of slaves, condemned to die, floating down the Nile in a basket, only to become an adopted Prince of Egypt, but then, from Egypt to exile in the land of Midian, and the simple life of a shepherd. But then came the burning bush and his calling to return to Egypt as a Prophet, to challenge the most powerful man in the world at that time, and lead his people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the desert to Mount Sinai to an encounter with God, and then through forty years of wandering so that a purified people might enter the Holy Land.
But Moses was only human, imperfect, fallible, and mortal. And so, even though he prayed to God to let him finish this awesome trek, cross the Jordan River, and set foot on the other side. But God told him that it was not for him to complete the journey, that others would continue what he had begun. And so, we gather here tonight, thousands of years later, because we have kept the faith, and have not abandoned that spiritual journey that began so very long ago.
Va'etchanan is the second parsha from the Book of Devarim, which is known in English as Deuteronomy, but the literal translation of Devarim is "Words." And we are a people of words, of many words indeed, and we worship a God of words, whose first act of creation was to say the words, "Let there be light!" And so, we begin with the candle lighting ceremony.
At this point, we began our regular Shabbat service, but before saying the first major prayers, the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) and the V'Ahavta (And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…), I said the following:
The Ten Commandments appear first in the Book of Exodus, and then a second time in Deuteronomy, in Va'etchanan. It is also in this parsha that we find the first line of the watchword of our faith, the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One), and one of our most meaningful prayers, the V'Ahavta (And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…). Long ago, the Ten Commandments were also part of the Jewish worship service, and I think it might be time to restore them to our liturgy. So I ask you to join with me in the reading of the Ten Commandments now, to be followed by the Sh'ma.
I had made copies of the passage that included the Ten Commandments from Va'etchanan, and we read together:
1. And Moses called all Israel and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, and learn them, and observe [them] to do them. 2. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3. Not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today. 4. Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire: 5. (and I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire, and you did not go up on the mountain) saying,
6."I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 7. You shall not have the gods of others in My presence.
8. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. 9. You shall not prostrate yourself before them, nor worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a zealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me. 10. And [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations] of those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.
11. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain.
12. Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13. Six days may you work, and perform all your labor, 14. but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. 15. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
16. Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it may go well with you on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.
17. You shall not murder.
And you shall not commit adultery.
And you shall not steal.
And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
18. And you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor shall you desire your neighbor's house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
And then we said the Sh'ma and V'Ahavta, which goes on to say "and these words which I command you on this day shall be in your heart..." So, afterwards I pointed out that this was a reference to the commandments we had just read. From this point, the service continued as usual, until it was time for the sermon. I started out by saying something like:
When I signed up to be a lay leader for this particular Friday night, I had no idea what the parsha would be. And in all honesty, I didn't realize what it was until last Friday night, when Eric Fisher explained that his parsha was the first from the book of Deuteronomy. At that point, I quickly looked at this week's reading, and discovered that it included Ten Commandments. This struck me as quite a coincidence, and maybe more than a coincidence, but that's not for me to say. Not too long ago, I had started to write some poetry and post it online, just for fun, and the thought occurred to me to write something based on The Ten Commandments. It would be a condensed version, written for a contemporary audience, stating the basic principles in a more positive, less, well, commanding manner. It took a little time, but it came together nicely, and since I already had a backlog of material that I was posting online, I figured I would get this one out there at the beginning of this past week, and in fact I posted it this past Monday. But I had no idea until last Friday that this would coincide with Parsha Va'etchanan, or that I would be leading the service in which the Ten Commandments are remembered. So, I would like to share with you my poem, with the caveat that I am nothing more than an amateur poet, and that this was not written to be a poem in the typical sense.
The Ten Commandments
As Told By God to Moses
(A New Translation and Interpretation by Lance Strate)
The Buck Stops Here!
Use Your Words,
But Choose Them With Care!
Give Us Both A Break,
And Your Parents, Too!
Labor As Well!
Be Honest, And
And that's all there is to it. The funny thing is, I've been thinking about the Ten Commandments for quite some time now. And for a while now, I've been thinking about writing an extended essay about the Decalogue. Instead, I wound up condensing the passage down to a short poem.
At this point, I started to talk about the fact that the Ten Commandments contain a universal message, and that the parsha itself says
For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say: Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.And I pointed out that our Ten Commandments had been a gift to the world, adopted by Christians of all denominations, by Moslems, and even by secular society where they are used as a symbol of law, and justice.
And I tried to explain that the reason for this is their universal message, which can perhaps be summed up by the word respect: have respect for God, four our mothers and fathers, our wives and husbands, our neighbors and their property, for our communities, for all people and their property, their labor, for all living things, and also, for YOURSELF. Have respect, be respectful, behave respectfully. And be decent, upright, compassionate, reasonable, and responsible. Don't do what is hateful, don't do what is harmful. This is the basic idea, the foundation of all other laws and commandments, of all justice. And perhaps we need to get back to these basics.
But then, I raised the question, What about God? We don't like to talk too much about God specifically in Reform Judaism, because we are part of the modern world and believe that every individual needs to decide for himself or herself what he or she believes in. But we also believe that we should understand the traditions of our faith and people, in order to make an informed choice. So, Why do we need God for the Ten Commandments? The easy answer is that invoking God gives the Law authority, and legitimacy, but that doesn't answer the question of why One God, why no God but God, why do we say that the Lord is our God and there is none else, why the Lord is our God, the Lord is One? Why, in other words, monotheism?
I then offered an explanation, noting that all other commandments rest on the First Commandment. If there is only the One God, then there is order, not competing forces, gods in conflict with one another with the world as their battleground, all vying for our loyalty, and not the chaos of multiplicity. The Biblical story of Creation is the story of God making order out of chaos and void, in the same way that we make order by cleaning our homes, by separating what is clean from what is dirty, separating different types of papers into their own piles, etc. So the story says that God separates light from darkness, night from day, the sky from the earth from the waters, etc. One God is a guarantee that there is order out there, even if things seem entirely random.
I continued by noting that we have One Creator, and therefore One Creation, a world that is coherent and comprehensible. Albert Einstein said that "God does not play dice with the universe." Well, why not? Simple, because He has no one to play with. The gods of polytheism play games with the world, with peoples lives. The One God does not, and leaves nothing to chance. This also means that the world is open to inspection, to investigation, and ultimately to science. The world is an open book, and orderly, and Lawful. One God has one set of laws, the laws of nature, and also the laws of society. One God, one Creation, one Humanity (that's where the story of Adam and Eve comes in), and therefore everyone is equal under God's law, even Moses. From the Universal God comes the universality of human rights, indeed of rights for all living things.
If there is one God, then He has ultimate responsibility, he says, "the buck stops here," and you can argue with Him, and be angry at Him, but you can't go and get a second opinion, can't find another god who will give you what you want. And this means that we ourselves also have to be responsible, responsible to the One God, and also responsible to others, and to ourselves.
At this point, I brought up the question of Why the Second Commandment? And I mentioned that, over two decades ago, when I was a doctoral student, my mentor, Neil Postman, started to talk about the significance of the Second Commandment's prohibition against graven images, in light of our present-day image culture, and our love affair with television. And that it represented the insight that our modes of communication have much to do with our forms of consciousness, and our morality. Our One God is a God of words, he is a voice and not a face, heard but not seen.
At this point, I had originally intended to read some selections from the parsha Va'etchanan, but opted to keep things shorter rather than longer. But let me insert the passages here, where time is no longer an issue (this is from Deuteronomy, of course):
5. Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord, my God, commanded me, to do so in the midst of the land to which you are coming to possess. 6. And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, "Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people. " 7. For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is at all times that we call upon Him? 8. And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this entire Torah, which I set before you this day? 9. But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children, 10. the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, "Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children. 11. And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness. 12. The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice. 13. And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets. 14. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, so that you should do them in the land to which you are crossing, to possess. 15. And you shall watch yourselves very well, for you did not see any image on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. 16. Lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a graven image, the representation of any form, the likeness of male or female, 17. the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the heaven, 18. the likeness of anything that crawls on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters, beneath the earth. 19. And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, which the Lord your God assigned to all peoples under the entire heaven, and be drawn away to prostrate yourselves before them and worship them. 20. But the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron crucible, out of Egypt, to be a people of His possession, as of this day. . 21. And the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Jordan and that I would not come into the good land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance. 22. For I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan. You, however, will cross, and you will possess this good land. 23. Beware, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image, the likeness of anything, which the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a zealous God. 25. When you beget children and children's children, and you will be long established in the land, and you become corrupt and make a graven image, the likeness of anything, and do evil in the eyes of the Lord your God, to provoke Him to anger, 26. I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to where the Lord will lead you. 28. And there you will worship gods, man's handiwork, wood and stone, which neither see, hear, eat, nor smell. 29. And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30. When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to the Lord your God and obey Him. 31. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them. 32. For ask now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard? 33. Did ever a people hear God's voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live? 34. Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of a[nother] nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? 35. You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him. 36. From the heavens, He let you hear His voice to instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire, 37. and because He loved your forefathers and chose their seed after them, and He brought you out of Egypt before Him with His great strength, 38. to drive out from before you nations greater and stronger than you, to bring you and give you their land for an inheritance, as this day. 39. And you shall know this day and consider it in your heart, that the Lord He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else. 40. And you shall observe His statutes and His commandments, which I command you this day, that it may be well with you and your children after you, and that you may prolong your days upon the earth which the Lord your God gives you forever.
What I want to emphasize is the extraordinary rejection of images and idols, and the emphasis on voice alone, and therefore words, in this passage. And this is not unique, but a major theme throughout the Jewish Holy Scriptures (aka Old Testament). For example, here's a passage favored by media ecologists from the 115th Psalm of David (2-8):
Wherefore should the nations say:I did quote the line, "They that make them shall be like unto them," tonight, explaining that the idea is that the way that we communicate influences the way that we think and behave. And I went on to point out that the One God uses words, and wants us to use words. And this includes the written word, as He is the author of the 10 Commandments, and the other 603 as well, or the entire Torah. In the Book of Daniel, he is the source of the writing on the wall. And every new year, on Rosh Hashonah we ask God to inscribe our names in book of life. God is a writer, he gives us his words, the Law, in writing, and therefore we need to be literate ourselves, to be readers and writers. To think in words, to think as a literate, means not thinking so much in images.
'Where is now their God?'
But our God is in the heavens;
Whatsoever pleased Him He hath done.
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not;
Eyes they have, but they hear not;
Noses have they, but they smell not;
They have hands, but they handle not;
Feet have they, but they walk not;
Neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them shall be like unto them;
Yea, every one that trusteth in them.
The written word makes it possible for us to think abstractly and universally. Monotheism could not have been introduced before writing. To have One God instead of many is abstract, to have a God that is invisible but everywhere all at once rather than tied to a specific place is abstract. To have a universal God who is absolute in all ways is abstract. Idols are concrete, tangible. So are trees, mountains, bodies of water, the sky, the sun, moon, planets and stars, etc. Nature is concrete. Monotheism gives us a transcendent God, and what goes hand in hand with this universal concept of the divine is the universality of Law, and Justice, and human rights.
The Ten Commandments represent an effort to raise people's consciousness to a new level. It may be that at one time people thought mostly in images, and when they thought in words it was so unusual that they thought they were hearing voices from the outside, from supernatural beings. Or maybe people thought in words, but words tied to concrete images and experiences, not abstract concepts. Whatever may have been the case, there was an evolution of consciousness that took place at that moment, and that spread throughout the world.
At this point, I just want to note that one member of the congregation later mentioned to me that he had read Julian Jaynes's book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which happens to be a book that many media ecologists have read and find interesting, in fact it was assigned by Neil Postman back when I studied with him. And Jaynes in particular believed that in antiquity people did not have think in words, and when they first stated to, they thought they were hearing voices coming from spirits or gods. He had a theory that this was due to actual biological evolution of the brain, but an alternate explanation would be that it was due to the shift from orality to literacy, as the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong argues in Orality and Literacy.
So, I ended by asking, Why the Sabbath? It represents a break from work, and for us especially a break also from leisure, from the constant stimulation and distraction of a 24/7 society. It's the idea that it is important to take time to attend to your spiritual and moral development, to make time for the sacred, and to take time to meditate, to think, to be mindful, to explore and extend our consciousness.
And then we finished the service, and before the final hymn, I said some things about how we had completed the journey for tonight, and how we need to continue the spiritual journey, how we need to continue our moral development, strive always to be better than we are, and that our consciousness can continue to evolve in this way.
One final note. My son had come with me, and gave out the handouts with the Ten Commandments, which I greatly appreciate, and my wife came with my daughter during the prayer for healing (and I'm glad my daughter got some of that energy), and sat through the sermon and end of service (not an easy task for a child with autism).
And how else to end this post now, except by saying