I usually try to offer messages of hope and optimism in my sermons. But my sermon tonight is different.
It’s a warning. A sounding of the alarm. A call to repentance.
No, it’s not about the election. Not directly, anyway.
It’s about what, to my mind, is the single greatest threat we face today in America –
the deep and extreme division in our society;
the genuine hatred we have for our fellow human beings who see the world differently or support a different candidate;
our complete inability as a society to disagree respectfully and still love each other;
our toxic impulse to condemn and disown wide swaths of our population not just as wrong, but as evil – in most cases, without ever looking them in the eye, or knowing their hearts, or even their names.
As we approach the High Holidays, we have to call these what they are: grave transgressions. And dangerous ones.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
It’s an old sentiment, going all the way back to the talmudic sages. They taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because the various factions in the Jewish community hated each other so intensely that their hatred corrupted the society and led to its collapse.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As in Judea nearly 2,000 years ago, hatred is a toxic force corrupting our society, weakening it, and threatening its existence.
* * *
The Talmud says that at the root of all corruption is idolatry (Sanhedrin 57a).
Idolatry is the worship of a false god. But what does that mean?
To worship something as a god is to give it ultimate power over your life.
When we surrender our will and our well-being to something else, we make that something else into a god.
When we give something or someone control over our decisions, our behavior, our relationships; when we let it dominate our worldview and our daily lives – we make that someone or something into a god. We commit idolatry.
And here’s my estimation of the state of our society today: we are deeply enmeshed in a dangerous and all-consuming idolatry.
I don’t mean what I’m about to say as a political statement. Idolatry is a spiritual error, not a political one.
Some of you are going to love this, some of you are going to hate it. But I believe this to be true, and I’m just going to say it: the object of our idolatry in America today is Donald Trump.
And it’s not just those who love him who are guilty; it’s those who hate him, too.
See, contrary to what you might think, idolatry is not always about love and adoration; it’s about giving something or someone dominance over your life.
That dominance can manifest itself in love and adoration, but it doesn’t have to. A person can worship drugs or money by letting them control his life, while at the same time despising them for the havoc and ruin they bring upon him.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) brings a weird and grotesque story to illustrate how hatred, too, can be a form of idolatry.
I’ll spare you the details, but here’s the bottom line: There was an idol in the ancient world called Ba’al Pe’or, and – I kid you not – the way you worshipped it was, let’s just say euphemistically, by “relieving yourself” on it.
(Seriously. You can look it up.)
But here’s the point: contempt, no less than love, can be raised to the level of worship. It’s the deification of disgust.
When we let our contempt and loathing for someone or something gain such power over us that it becomes a dominating, controlling force in our lives, we actually turn that object of contempt and loathing into an object of idol worship.
This society has transformed Donald Trump into an idol.
Some of us worship him with love and adoration; some of us worship him with hate and disgust. But worship him we do.
We worship him by surrendering our will, our minds, and our well-being to him.
Think about it. There is very little mental, emotional, or spiritual space in our lives anymore that Trump doesn’t dominate.
He’s just a man, after all – but we have given him far too much power over far too much of who we are and how we live day-to-day.
When I ask people, “How are you are doing?” these days, I can’t tell you how many of them answer with something about how Trump has got them down, or angry, or terrified, or outraged, or what not.
I’m sure we all know people who have ended friendships, or cut off family members, all because of what they think about Trump.
Maybe that’s happened to you – or worse, maybe you’ve done it to someone else.
Trump dominates our conversation and our consciousness, all the time.
As the commentator Matt Taibbi wrote in his column today: We “imbu[e] Trump’s every move with earth-shattering importance.”
We listen to people “say his name on TV thousands of times a day…and then [we] keep talking about him…at office parties, family dinners, kids’ sports events, everywhere, which sooner or later gets people wondering: who’s more annoying, the blowhard, or the people who can’t stop talking about the blowhard?”
On a larger scale, as Taibbi grimly points out, “Institutional America is now organized around a Trump-led America. The news media will lose billions with him gone… A surging activist movement will be deflated without him, along with a host of related fundraising groups and businesses…”
“It feels like a co-dependent relationship… People claim to hate him, but they never turn off the show…”
If we take honest stock of our lives, we see just how much control we have surrendered to this futile and destructive idolatry:
We let Trump determine who we’re going to be friends with…
We let him determine which family members we can talk to and which ones we can’t…
We give him say over key decisions we make in our jobs, over the TV we watch, the news we read, the way we process information.
Loving or hating Donald Trump has become our national religion.
And we spend countless hours imbibing dogma from Fox News, where he’s the savior of mankind, or CNN, where he’s the devil incarnate.
We are obsessed with him; consumed by him.
We even let him determine our mood, our ability to be optimistic, and our capacity to enjoy life!
And no one is to blame for that except us. We’ve done it to ourselves.
See, the thing about idols is, they’re false gods. As Abraham demonstrated to his father in that famous midrash, idols don’t really have the power we attribute to them. They’re the creation of human hands.
Neither Donald Trump nor any human being has the power to make himself an object of our adoring or our contemptuous worship. Only we can do that.
And we have.
The outcome is that we’ve created a society corrupted and weakened by broken relationships, baseless hatred, and a seemingly unbridgeable chasm dividing us.
* * *
So how do we save it? How do we heal?
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is not to be found in politics.
Elections are important, of course, and everyone should vote. Whichever candidate you support, vote.
But it is an error to view politics and elections as redemptive.
As the psalm says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, for they have no power to save.” (Psalm 146:3)
No, the real issues that need to be addressed are spiritual, and the work we have to do is deeply reflective.
There must be reasons why we have fallen into this idol worship.
What are they? What does it say about who we are, and how we need to change?
Maybe we can start with something Moses says in our Torah portion this week:
“Be silent, and listen, Israel!” he says. “Today you have become the people of Adonai your God.” (Deut. 27:9)
Maybe the first step toward ending the hatred and healing our broken society and our broken relationships is to just be quiet for once, and listen to each other; listen to the truths about ourselves that we’d rather ignore; listen to God.
* * *
One thing is for sure, though: just as Jonah warned the people of Nineveh, we will not save our society or our ourselves unless and until we repent of this idolatry and the grievous sins we have committed against each other in its name.
Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha…
For the sin we have committed against You, God…
By judging others unfairly.
By mistreating a friend or neighbor.
By losing self-control.
By giving in to our hostile impulses.
By violence and abuse.
By lies and deceit.
By cynicism and scorn.
By offensive speech.
By baseless hatred.
V’al kulam elo’ah s’lichot; s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.
For all these failures of judgment and will, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.