Yom Kippur 5782/2021 - Koleinu - Rabbi Joel Nickerson

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Nickerson
  • Sermon
  • Yom Kippur

Reinterpreting the 10 Commandments

The night before Rosh Hashanah, I officiated a beautiful wedding on a cliff overlooking the ocean, just as the sun was setting.  I love officiating at weddings.  I get a front row seat to one of the most intimate and meaningful moments in a couple’s life.  There’s something that happens during a wedding - a moment of potential and possibility unlike any other and I love that I get to be a part of that moment.  And when we reach the end of the ceremony, I put a covered glass on the floor, the groom steps on it, we yell ‘mazel tov’, they kiss, and as they ride off into the sunset, I’m usually the one who picks up the broken pieces of glass; the pieces they left behind.  We all know what they’re running out into.  It’s not a sunset.  It’s not a lifetime of rose petals and delicious cake – it’s a world of joy and opportunity, yes, but it’s also a world of potential torment, a world in which they need to navigate pieces of broken glass.

That brokenness has been profound lately and we’ve all experienced it in one way or another.  But if we want to mend some of the broken pieces in this world, we need to stop focusing on the enormity of the challenges, and start looking for some practical ways to bring elements of hope, responsibility, and action into the picture.  On Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the Talmudic story of the cave and the lessons that can guide our emergence after this pandemic.  But today, on Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to reflecting on the past and developing strategies for self-improvement in the new year, I want us to turn to another text from our tradition.

As Jews, we have always relied on text to guide us. But many of us feel distant from our Jewish sources, having a difficult time finding their relevancy in today’s world.  So I thought that on this holiest of days, I would take this moment to show you that Torah can still provide intentionality and purpose.  We’re exposed to the Ten Commandments as we grow up, learning about them in religious school, hearing references to them in secular, as well as religious settings, and even using them to try and get our children to behave.  But for a list of its significance, few of us have actually spent time as adults thinking about their meaning and relevance in our lives.  Today, I’d like us to change that.  I believe that there is a modern way of explaining each of the Commandments and that they are organized in a purposeful progression. They provide a detailed roadmap we can use as we emerge from our caves and can help us pick up the broken pieces that we find all around us. They are personal building blocks, and that final commandment, the 10th, is more than just a command, it’s the ultimate reward. 

If you want to follow along as we go through the commandments, do a quick Google search now and have them pulled up on your device.

Commandment #1 – I am the Lord Your God

“I, Adonai, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me.”

A friend of mine, who happens to be a rabbi, told me that when he was young, he was totally turned off by God and had no respect for rabbis.  When he was in high school, at High Holyday services during the Amidah, when everyone was standing facing the ark, the rabbi instead turned towards the congregation, raised his arms in the air, and stated the last line of the prayer in English, “I am the Lord Your God”.  That image became ingrained in his mind and captured what he thought was one of the most significant problems in the world – man thinking he is God.   

The first commandment is not about a need to have continual faith in God or even a declaration that you MUST believe in God at all.  It’s important for us to remember that you can be a good Jew and not believe in God!  Commandment #1 commands you to never believe that you ARE God.  This is a commandment reminding us that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves.  It’s the foundational commandment.  Commandment #1 says, ‘You are not the center of the universe, there are forces larger than you at play and you will never understand it all.’  Once you accept this baseline reality, you can begin to build a life of purpose and meaning that can help bring healing to yourself and a broken world.

Commandment #2 – No idols

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

Do you know what I think is the most transformative technology of the 21st century? The selfie camera on our phones; the ability to take a picture of ourselves while looking at ourselves.  Research has shown that those who take and post selfies to social media report feeling more anxious, less confident, and less physically attractive afterwards compared to those in the control group and harmful effects of selfies were found even when participants could retake and retouch their selfies. 

An idol is an object or person onto which the worshipper places all responsibility for the good and bad occurring in his or her life.  The selfie is just one example of idol worship in today’s world.  A great Spanish philosopher and rabbi, Isaac ben Moses Arama, wrote about this commandment and said, “under the category of idolatry we must include a form which is particularly virulent today – the devoting of all energies and thoughts to the accumulation of wealth and achievement of worldly success.  They are the mighty gods on which they rely, to which they pay allegiance and for which they repudiate the Lord on high and forsake His Torah, leaving it deserted and forlorn in a remote corner.”  He wrote that in the 1400s!  

Commandment #2 is intimately linked to Commandment #1.  When we see the world revolving around us, we fail to recognize that we are part of something bigger.  

Commandment #3 – Don’t swear falsely

You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God.”

God created the world with words.  God said ‘Let there be light.” And there was light.  The phrase, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ was definitely not written by a Jew because we know the power of words.  We understand that words can create and they can destroy.  They can be used for blessings or for curses.  The Hebrew word for swearing ‘falsely’ or ‘in vain’ is shav, which means ‘emptiness, vanity, worthlessness’.  This is a Commandment against empty speech.  We’re living in a time when empty and worthless speech is shared regularly and even we can be tempted to fall into that trap.  Every time we are about to engage in some social media conversation or participate in some debate or discussion with others, this Commandment is asking us an important question - Are you adding something of substance to the world?

Commandment #3 leads us directly back to Commandments #2 and #1 – a reminder that the ultimate power to create and destroy is not ours to wield. 

 Commandment #4 – Shabbat

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work.”

One, if not the most brilliant innovations in human history, is Shabbat.  The most ancient of societies understood that we can’t work 24/7 – we need a break.  We’re hurting ourselves and those we love if we don’t figure out a way to make Shabbat happen - it can save your career, your marriage, and your mental health.  I understand that we’re not going to have an entire community of liberal Jews keeping Shabbat from Friday to Saturday night - the religion of soccer rules the Saturday schedule and maybe Costco isn’t as busy on Saturdays as it is on Sundays - but I do believe we can begin to shift our lives ever so slightly.  Start with something small and you may start to notice the brilliance of Shabbat infusing itself into your life.

This Commandment is not just about physical rest and rejuvenation, though.  This is about recognizing your limitations.  This is about understanding that you can’t do it all.  The world is much bigger than you.  Feel secure with the fact that the world goes on without you.

Commandment #5 – Honor your father and mother

“Honor your father and your mother.”

Three elderly women are sitting together at the Jewish Home, bragging about their relationships with their sons.  One says, "My son is so devoted to me, for my birthday he gave me an all-expenses-paid cruise around the world." The second pipes in and says, "That's nothing. Mine threw a huge catered affair for me, and he flew in all my friends from the East Coast." The third woman smirks at them both. "Without a doubt, my son is the most devoted. Three times a week he goes to his therapist. Two hundred and fifty dollars a session he pays. And what does he talk about the whole time? Me!"

The Commandment doesn’t say ‘love your mother and father’.  Rarely does the Torah command love, but honoring is something else.  This is a commandment about history.  It’s about knowing that we’re a link in a chain of tradition that we must represent.  Commandment #5 reminds us that we’re a small piece in a much bigger story.  Take the time to learn your family’s story.

Commandment #6 – Don’t murder

“You shall not murder.”

Don’t murder people – literally and figuratively.  Most of us feel as though this commandment doesn’t apply to us.  We’re not murderers, we’d never do something like that.   But this commandment is about more than just destroying another person by physical harm.  It’s also about destroying someone with words; destroying someone’s character, their well-being, or their reputation.  You know that feeling that you sometimes have when you just want to destroy someone because of how they treated you?  You know those times when you fantasize about their fall from grace?  According to our tradition, it’s okay to think about those things, but what matters the most is whether or not we act on those impulses.  That’s where the 6th Commandment comes into play for all of us.  If we act on those thoughts, that’s when we break this Commandment.  Do not search and destroy.  Do not look for the weaknesses in others and pounce on them.  The first murder in the Torah was fratricide – Cain killing Abel – one brother killing another because of disappointment, ego, jealousy, competition, and greed.    

As we learned in Commandment #3, God created the world with words. But God also made us in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim.  To be made in God’s image is to respect the value of human life.

Commandment #7 – No Adultery

“You shall not commit adultery.”

This Commandment is intimately linked to the Commandment that comes before it and after it, because it refers to one of the most damaging ways to destroy a life and the ultimate form of stealing.  Adultery is more than just stealing someone’s partner; it’s destroying your partner’s ultimate trust, stealing intimacy shared between people who committed their lives to each other, destroying the one bond that’s established under the chuppah and supposed to be strong enough to withstand all the brokenness around us.

If you break this commandment, it’s because you believe your physical and emotional needs supersede everyone else’s – and when we put ourselves before others, we fail to meet the most basic tenets of our tradition.  

Commandment #8 – Do Not Steal

“You shall not steal.”

I had a rough time in 7th grade.  My older step-brother and I stole a lot of things for fun that year.  The stealing didn’t end because I got caught or because I got into big trouble.  I stopped because our younger step-brother, who knew about our ventures, was caught trying to steal something from the grocery store.  That was a turning point because I came to understand that my actions could indirectly impact others, especially the people I loved.  

Commandment #8 isn’t just about stealing property - it’s about stealing someone’s innocence; ruining someone’s reputation; taking credit where credit isn’t due; it’s about going into a store with no intention of buying something and wasting 30 minutes of the salesperson’s time.  It’s about stealing someone’s livelihood, their productivity; their motivation.  In the context of the Commandments, this one is the catch-all for the stealing of everything besides life and lover.

Commandment #9 – Don’t bear false witness

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

The simplest way to describe this Commandment is ‘Don’t lie.’  We have to remember that this commandment is not limited to our face-to-face interactions with people – this also extends to the ways in which we share information and interact online.  It’s reprehensible what some are willing to say on social media – things we would never say to someone’s face but for some reason, feel emboldened to do so online.  As Abravanel, a 14th century rabbinic commentator states, “After the admonition not to harm your fellow in deed, neither his body (You shall not murder), nor his wife (adultery), nor his goods (steal), comes the admonition not to harm him by word of mouth.  This includes, besides bearing false witness, one who mocks his fellow, slanders and denigrates him, insults him publicly and the like.”  As he points out, this Commandment isn’t limited to lying; it’s about anything negative you say to, or about, another person.  

But the person we are most prone to lie to, and about, is ourselves.  We do it often.  We do a good job of hiding from ourselves.  Commandment #9 reminds us that in order to live a life of purpose, a life of wholeness, we must be honest and true to others and more importantly, to ourselves.

So here we are. We made it…

Commandment #10 – Don’t covet

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

I want his car.  I need her house.  What I would give to have that body.  I could be coveting right now and you wouldn’t even know it.   Coveting is the longing for something that isn’t rightfully ours and almost always, the object of our desire is something that belongs to someone else.  We covet when our energy is directed toward a neighbor, a friend, a colleague, who has possessions and position that aren't our own.  We covet ourselves when we simply can’t accept the reality that something that was once ours, is no more.

But as I mentioned in the beginning, the final commandment is more than just a command – it’s a reward! Because, if you can follow the first nine Commandments, you won’t want anyone else’s possessions; you won’t want anyone else’s life – you won’t have to covet anything.  If you live by the first nine commandments: 

  • You recognize that you aren’t the center of the universe and you have faith that you’ll never be able to understand it all.
  • You don’t see the world as your selfie.
  • You use words to create not destroy.
  • You understand that the world goes on without you and you’re okay with that.
  • You recognize that you’re part of a larger historical context and that you have a responsibility to pass on certain values and stories.
  • You don’t murder through actions or words.
  • You would never steal someone else’s partner or betray your own.
  • You don’t steal credit, time, or resources from anyone else.
  • You don’t lie to yourself or others.

 

When you live by these nine guidelines, the tenth Commandment isn’t even an issue - you’re already living a life of meaning and purpose!  You already recognize that you don’t need anything that anyone else has.

We can only fix the world around us when we, ourselves, are whole. These 10 building blocks can serve as our personal guide. As we read in this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, the Torah is not distant from us, it is accessible, it is relevant!  Those 10 commandments you learned as a child offered so much more than you even realized.

I’m the last one to leave the chuppah at the end of a wedding ceremony.  Before I start walking, when I’m standing there alone holding those broken pieces of glass in my hand, I know how hard it would be to try and put all those broken pieces back together again.  It reminds me that we have a lot of work to do; a lot of brokenness that needs mending.  But as I watch the couple go off to singing, smiling, and clapping, I’m hopeful.  The world can be whole again.  And today, I am hopeful the same is true for each of us. 

Shana tova and g’mar chatimah tovah.