By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin Kaner
Rosh HaShanah 5782/September 7 2021
I want to start with a story—maybe one you’ve heard before. It’s a story about Abraham, back when he was known as Avram, and his father, Terach, and how Abraham smashed the idols. The story goes like this:
Abraham’s father Terach sold idols for a living. Occasionally, he would go out of town, and when he did, he’d leave young Abraham in charge of the idol shop.
One day, when Abraham was minding the shop, a woman came in with a plateful of food and said to Abraham, “I want to give this food to the idols.” As soon as the woman left, Abraham took a large stick and smashed all the idols except the largest one, and then placed the stick in its hands. When Terach returned, he was shocked to find the contents of his shop smashed to smithereens.
“What happened here?” he demanded of his son.
“Well,” said young Abraham, “a woman came with an offering for the idols. One idol announced, ‘I must eat first,’ but then another insisted, ‘No, I must eat first.’ Then the largest idol rose up, took that stick, and broke them all.”
“Don’t be absurd!” said Terach angrily. “Idols can’t move or speak!”
“Did you hear what you just said!?” Abraham asked. “If they can’t move or speak, how much power can they really have? How could we worship them?”
Then Terach, silenced and enraged, sent his son away.
This story—from Bereshit Rabbah—is an origin story of the first Jew; how Abraham started on his journey toward the idea of one God. The story makes it clear that even as a youngster, Abraham could see that believing in idols was silly; and we, from our 21st century vantage point, agree. So naturally we think of Abraham as the hero of this story, and Terach as the misguided villain. But lately, I’ve been less curious about Abraham’s iconoclasm and more curious about his father’s experience: how it must have felt for Terach to come home and find his livelihood and his faith shattered by his own son.
I’ve been thinking about Terach lately because I believe we’re living through a time of our own idols being smashed. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anyone in this kahal actually has figurines of Baal or Asherah in their homes. But I do believe that as a society, we’re experiencing what it’s like to believe in something, to invest emotionally in that thing, to consider it sacred, and then have it shattered.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about the delight we took in Bill Cosby, America’s most loveable dad, and then finding out he sexually assaulted dozens if not hundreds of people throughout his long career. I’m talking about Andrew Cuomo, and Louis CK, and Michael Douglas, and Kevin Spacey, and Junot Diaz, and Sherman Alexie, and on and on.
I’m talking about growing up trusting police, and then watching George Floyd be murdered while calling out for his mother, and hearing about how Breonna Taylor was killed in a raid of her home. I’m talking about memorizing Tamir Rice’s 12-year-old grin, his wide cheekbones and his mischievous eyes, from his obituary photo.
I’m talking about growing up with the idea of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, or the Israeli Defense Forces as the ‘most moral army in the world.’ And then coming to learn that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were deliberately displaced in the founding of the Jewish state, or that Israel is a flawed country like any other. I’m talking about living through May of this year as Israeli rockets killed 67 children in Gaza.
I’m talking about learning to feel pride in America as a democratic ideal, with trust in the basic decency of our government leaders—and then witnessing endless wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. I’m talking about half the country electing an abhorrent abuser in 2016. I’m talking about living through January of this year, watching his mob break into the Capitol, wearing t-shirts that said ‘6 million wasn’t enough.’ I’m talking about this past week’s abortion ban in Texas.
I’m talking about growing up with a basic sense of trust in one’s fellow citizens, and then seeing people refuse to wear masks, refuse to do the minimum to keep one another safe during a pandemic.
I’m talking about faith, and the loss of faith; I’m talking about trust, and the loss of trust; I’m talking about belief, and the loss of belief.
It’s human nature to believe in goodness. It’s human nature to believe in the goodness and stability of the systems we create and the people we put in charge of those systems. So what happens when those systems are revealed to be fundamentally damaged or damaging? What happens when we find ourselves surrounded by the shattered remnants of the idols we once believed in?
Or, to ask this question differently: What have you been feeling these last weeks, months, years? Anxiety, sorrow, despair? Outrage, disgust? Alienation, mistrust? Bitterness, confusion, shame?
These are these emotions that accompany the psychological state of ‘moral injury.’
Moral injury is a reaction to a traumatic experience—a traumatic experience that violates our sense of how the world should work. It happens when our meaning systems confront something chaotic or disastrous; when we witness events that shatter our deeply held values. But moral injury doesn’t only occur when we are witnesses. It also happens when we come to understand that we are the perpetrators or perpetuators of an unjust system; it happens when we find ourselves complicit in things that we don’t want to be complicit in. Like as Jews, when we find ourselves defending some of the more immoral decisions of the Israeli government. Like as people with white privilege, when we come to understand how we benefit from systemic racism. Like as Americans, when we see how our taxes feed the American war machine. And how helpless we feel to change any of these realities.
What’s wounded in moral injury is our sense of the world, and our place in it.
We have a fundamental need to engage with the world in a moral way. When we feel like we’ve lost our ability to do that, it’s disorienting. It’s painful. And it’s also isolating. Moral injury messes with our ability to connect to other people. Or, to put a Jewish spin on it: it leaves us in a state of alienation from goodness—which is what we call sin.
In Judaism, sin is the opposite of a mitzvah. The word ‘mitzvah,’ or ‘commandment,’ comes from the Aramaic root ‘tzavta,’ meaning ‘to bind together, to connect.’ If a mitzvah is something that connects us—to God, to our past, to family and community, to others in need, to our own deepest values—then sin is something that leads to a disruption of these connections.
Judaism teaches that idol worship is perhaps the greatest possible sin, from our second commandment (not to create idols or worship them) to the rabbinic saying: “Whoever endorses idolatry, rejects the entire Torah.” (Sifre Deuteronomy 28)
Why is idol worship such a focus of our tradition? Why is it such a sin, to guard against? Coming back to the smashing of idols and how painfully disorienting it is to live through such devastation: maybe we were taught that idol worship is a sin not because God is a jealous God, but because our tradition contains deep wisdom: the wisdom that it is hard to live when we place our faith in fallible things. Because inevitably, our idols will be smashed, and that will be devastating to us.
We need our gods to be immutable. We need our gods to be eternal. This is the deep truth of our tradition.
Only an hour ago, as part of the Rosh HaShana morning liturgy, we read a kavanah for ‘HaMelech,’ the liturgical moment of divine enthronement. The kavanah stated: “We have a need to re-enthrone meaning in the face of the chaos of our lives” (Kol HaNeshama Machzor, 269). We do. Perhaps never more so than today. Because we cannot survive as modern-day Terachs. We cannot abandon ourselves and one another to this present-day idol shop, surrounded by smithereens and turning the stick on one another and on ourselves. We need an act of re-enthronement. We need a God that cannot break, a world that will not keep shattering.
With so many of our idols destroyed at this point, how do we trust again? How do we figure out what to believe in?
Recovering a sense of trust, in our world, in our leaders, in one another, isn’t easy. We’ve lost a lot. And losses create suffering. And fear. And doubt that we actually know how to do this, that we’ll know how to make the right choices this time around.
But we do know how to do this. This power of discernment is deep in our ancestral DNA. We inherited it from Abraham, from the very first Jew: the ability to differentiate between what is eternal and what is temporary; between what is sacred and what is not. And to enthrone what is eternal, what is fundamental, and what is the deepest truth of life. Which is: Love.
What’s the first thing we know when we come into the world? Love. We are created out of love, and it is what sustains us, literally keeps us alive when we are infants. Love creates life. Love sustains life.
And love is embedded in the heart of our tradition. What’s the most important prayer in Judaism? The Shma. The Shma is at the core of Jewish belief. On the surface, the Shma seems like a simple declaration of monotheism: Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. But if God is One, if God is Oneness, if we all contain that sacred, unified wholeness, then the only possible imperative is to love: Ve’Ahavta. When we really integrate the awareness that we are one, then we have nothing else to do but love one another by receiving, resting in, and transmitting abundant love. Our God becomes a God of love, and our life’s work simplifies into seeing love, receiving love, integrating love, and extending love outwards.
Ve’Ahavta: And we will love. On this first day of a new year, we have the chance to acknowledge our old idols, even honor what they gave us. We can gather up the broken pieces, bury them with care, and enthrone an eternal truth—Ve’Ahavta—a truth that will not break, no matter the challenges of the year to come.
Committing to a new enthronement in the face of chaos is an invitation to believe again. But in this process, how do we make sure that we’re not just setting new idols on the throne?
The way to do this is actually relatively simple. We ask ourselves one question: Is this oriented towards love? This is the question we have to ask ourselves, in every relationship, inside every belief: ‘Does this idea, this person, this leader, this system, orient towards love? Does this maintain and promote a field of care?’ And if the answer is no, then it may well turn out to be another idol. Which means it’s not right for us, and for our tender, yearning hearts.
Just think of what is possible for us, if we enter the new year holding up the banner of this question for ourselves: Is this oriented towards love? This email I’m about to send my coworker: Is it oriented towards love? This text I’m about to send my friend: Is it oriented towards love? This politician’s platform: Is it oriented towards love? This non-profit I’m donating to: Is it oriented towards love? This community I’m joining: Is it oriented towards love?
We are deserving of a world that doesn’t shatter, and break our hearts along with it. We are deserving of, worthy of, capable of building a world that merits our trust. We are deserving of a world built on love.