Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them, for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments.– Exodus 20: 3-4
A closer look, a restatement, a meditation:
Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. — A manufactured thing is different from a living thing, like a human being, an animal, or even a landscape.
you shall not bow down to them – Do not put any manufactured thing at the center of your life.
and serve them – Manufactured things should serve human beings, not the other way around.
forI the Eternal your God am a jealous God – This is a high-stakes situation! Mess up the priorities, and there will be trouble, to wit:
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me – Messing up our priorities and favoring manufactured things, human-made things, over the living world can cause a whole bunch of trouble for our children and grandchildren.
showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments. – Conversely, keeping our priorities in order can make it much more likely that our great-great-grandchildren can live in peace in the living world.
A friend recently reported on facebook that her phone autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.”
A lot of people come to my classes worried that:
I am going to find out they don’t believe in “God.”
I am going to be mad that they don’t believe in “God.”
I am going to insist that they believe in “God.”
I am going to make a big deal out of any of the above.
The only thing I know for sure about That-Which-We-Call-God is that I agree with Maimonides: whatever I think God is, that is what God is not.
I don’t like to use pronouns for God. God is either beyond all gender or encompassing all genders, and I believe there are a lot more than two genders, so English pronouns are useless.
I find the word “God” increasingly useless because folks come to it with a lot of opinions ready at hand. Some people immediately think about the version of God that blasts people in the Bible. I agree, that person is scary and often immature. That limited image, taken alone, is not what I am talking about when I say, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God.” Remember, we are warned to be very careful about images.
Then there are people who refer to God as “Sky Daddy” or “Giant Sky Monster” or something similar. They’re trying to make the point that taking ancient metaphors literally is silly. I agree with them that taking an ancient metaphor literally is silly, but I don’t like to throw my metaphors out with the bathwater: some things are still useful even when I refuse to swallow them whole.
There is Something about the Universe that calls out for amazement. That is my God: the aspect of the world that is far beyond me, that leaves me with my jaw hanging open.* I witness it in the power of a terrible storm, and in the smell of a newborn baby. I witness it in acts of selflessness, and acts of courage.
Torah is the record of human beings trying to wrap their minds around it: a dance between The Amazed People and the Object of Amazement. The best way they could come up with to relate to it was to personify it, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore it. They cooked up the idea that they had a Covenant with it, that they were given commandments (mitzvot) to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the Amazingness of the Universe.
Torah is unfinished and in process. There is always work – human work – to be done to align the commandments with the ideal that they are intended to pursue. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad point out to Moses that the way Torah law was set up, it created an unjust situation. Moses is not sure. He confers with God, who immediately rectifies the situation. That is a model I can follow: when traditional interpretations of the law are unjust and unkind, then it’s time to come up with something better.
And yes, lots of bad stuff has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. That’s God as an excuse, and after hearing about my friend’s phone, I am going to refer to that “God” as “Godzilla.” The “God” that people cite as their authority for bad behavior is no more than a monster. One might even argue that it is an Idol, but that’s another post entirely.
*If you want to read better writing about this idea of God, check out the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says it all much better than do I.
I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat. Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out. Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark. Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!
A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know? Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years. And yes, sometimes they don’t. But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.
But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.
Someone has invited you to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner. Maybe you are “meeting the family” for the first time. Or maybe it’s just a friendly dinner. But you are not sure about the religious aspect: what’s expected? Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:
1. ASK QUESTIONS: Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner. Some are very formal, some equally informal. Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential:
What should I wear? Dress will differ from household to household, so ask. You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!
May I bring anything? The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!” If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about: allergies, etc. Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right? And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers. Not required, but nice.
Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see. Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.
2. BE ON TIME. Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables. Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.”
3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW. There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” at the end of prayers. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, you can tap your feet, or clap your hands, or just listen appreciatively. The dinner may begin with candlelighting and blessings over wine and bread. If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe. Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew; many American Jews do not. It is a wonderful thing to learn Hebrew, but no one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner!
4. COMMUNICATE! Shabbat dinner is not just about food. It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company. Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them. Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say. In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but do keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are out of place at the Shabbat dinner table.
5. SAY THANK YOU. Write your host afterward and thank them for including you. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!