Commandment #2: How to transcend the ego

There I am. 18 years old. Standing in my hometown synagogue during Shabbat evening services. I’m fresh off the boat from Israel where I’ve spent the last two years studying in a yeshiva.

And I am very, very desperate that everyone in the room should know just how awesome, and how devout, and how spiritual I really am. 

To a casual onlooker, I’d seem like a young man in the throes of fervent prayer, gesticulating with impressive intensity. There’s a yiddish word for that — it’s called shuckling

But from the inside —if you got a glimpse into that adolescent head of mine — there was a rambling, and frankly, kind of pathetic dialogue going on. “How’s my schuckling? Is my shuckling good? Is it too much? Is it too little? We need the right amount of shuckle, here folks!” 

“How long have I had my eyes closed here? It’s been what…five minutes? I don’t want them to think I’ve fallen asleep standing up. Don’t be silly — you can’t fall asleep standing up. It’s horses that do that. Or was it elephants?”

“Is everyone impressed? I mean, this is impressive, right? Look at the rabbi. He’s been done for like, five minutes. Maybe he needs to go back to yeshiva.

Now, thinking back on this episode of my younger self makes me cringe for a few reasons. One has to do with the spotlight effect, which is the “psychological phenomenon by which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are,” the “tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s.” 

Fascinating topic — but that’s for another video. No, what makes this episode even more cringe for me now is the realization that I’ve come to that it represents one of the most common and most subversive pitfalls in the religious journey. 

A pitfall that I think is a crucial part of what the second of the Ten Commandments is attempting to communicate:

“You shall not have other gods in My presence.”

“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.”

The second commandment is about not having any other gods besides capital G God, which, in the Torah, takes the form of idolatry, in Hebrew, avodah zarah.

Now, in my opinion, this is one of the hardest commandments to relate to right off of the bat. It’s almost cliche to point out how there’s not a ton of biblical-run-of-the-mill, tried-and-true idol worship happening around these parts.

And in fact, the Talmud famously points out that the appetite for traditional idol worship, which was apparently very much a thing back in the day — it’s not really a thing anymore. 

But it’s one of the Big Ten, and by now, I hope you agree, that means there’s a foundational principle here that’s relevant and useful for that good and meaningful life we all seek. So, it’s not surprising that for hundreds of years, various thinkers have found ways to relate the concept of idol worship to our everyday lived experience.

I want to share one of them with you. There’s one exchange that appears in the Midrash that points to what I think is a particularly profound application: 

The two participants in this exchange are Abraham and Nimrod. Abraham was, famously, not very into idols. And he’d been going around town dissuading folks from bowing to them, which got him in hot water with a lot of folks, including his own father, who snitched on him to the king, Nimrod, who was very into idols.

So Nimrod says to Abraham, “Let us worship fire.” And Abraham says back, “Instead, let’s worship water which quenches fire.”. And Nimrod says, ok, fine. “Let’s worship water.” 

And Abraham says back, again, “Not so fast, let’s worship the clouds from which water comes,” and Nimrod agrees. “Okay, let’s worship the clouds.”

But Abraham keeps going: “Um, let’s worship the wind which blows away the clouds.” “Yeah, you got it,” Nimrod says. “Let us worship the wind.” And then Abraham says, “Well, then, let’s worship human beings which can stand up to the wind.” 

And it’s here, at this point, where Nimrod loses his cool with Abraham. “You are just spewing words,” says Nimrod. “We’re going to worship the fire. And I’m going to throw you into it, and the God who you love can come and save you from it!”

Pleasant individual, that Nimrod! Of course, in the Midrash’s telling, Avraham emerges from the fire unscathed, but that’s actually not what caught my eye here.

Instead, I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s this last suggestion of Abraham, that they worship human beings, that set Nimrod off.

You can almost feel the defensiveness coming off the page of the Midrash. Abraham has hit a nerve. He’s gotten very close to the truth of what is animating Nimrod’s idol worship in the first place.

In other words, Nimrod’s worship of idols, when you strip away all the noise and really go back to the source, is really a worship of the self. Because, if what you serve is not motivated by truth, it’s de facto motivated by self-interest. 

Besides the Babylonian Talmud there’s also a Jerusalem Talmud. It was completed about 150 years before the Babylonian one and in it, Rabbi Yonai interprets the verse, “There shall not be a foreign God in you” plainly — when you worship yourself, you’re following the false God in you — literally! 

That’s got to be the idol worship of our times — the self, the “I,” the “me.” Now, for me, where this gets really interesting is when you understand that it’s possible to serve yourself when you think you’re serving God.

Like when, while praying…to God, you shuckle so hard because what you want more than anything else is that others should admire, praise, actually, worship you! It’s missing the point, big time. 

You see, Judaism prohibits all forms of idolatry — even if those idols are used to worship the one God of Judaism. The most famous example of all time, perhaps, is the golden calf.

You know the story. Moses goes up the mountain. He’s taking his time. The Jewish people get restless. They pressure Aaron into making the calf. And what do they say about that calf? They say, “‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

On the surface, it was the same God that they were serving. Except — God had told them not to make any image of Him. Ever. Because it reduces God into something of this world and, here’s the point, when you do that, it makes God into something you can control, or at least, something you can attempt to control.

And then we’re back to square one — you’re serving yourself. When the Jewish people made the golden calf, it wasn’t about God at all. It was about them. It was about what they wanted at that moment. 

In any healthy relationship, you can and should ask for things. But the very subtext of the relationship cannot be one in which God is being used by us. We serve God. God does not serve us. That’s where the Jewish people went wrong. They instrumentalized God to serve their own needs as opposed to serving and worshipping something greater than themselves. And that’s so easy for all of us to do.

It’s amazing the way that the ego creeps into everything that we do. And it’s even more amazing the way that we can utterly convince ourselves that it’s not about us, when it really is. 

Recently, a friend told me about a family he knew in which two brothers got into a massive fight. So much so that one of the brothers was getting married, and the other brother was refusing to come to the wedding.

And my friend was just beside himself that this family was tearing itself apart about this. And he wanted to do something. So he got into action! He started pestering the brother who wouldn’t come, calling him, telling him how important this was for his parents.

And then a few days later, he got a call. From the mother of these boys. And she said to him, “I know what you’re trying to do, and I get it, but I’ve got to tell you — you’re making it worse. You’ve made your point, but now, you’ve got to let this thing take its course.”

And my friend said to me that he realized — she was right. Certainly, his heart had started in the right place, but at this point, it was more about him than about them. He wanted to be the Knight in Shining Armor. He wanted to be the hero that saved the day.

Ever heard someone say I’m going to make loads of money so I can give charity? Or, I want to change the world and the fame that will come from it is only a byproduct? 

Ego. It’s so sneaky. It creeps into our work, our relationships. And most of the time, it messes things up. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro said it like this: Greatness doesn’t mean that you have to do great things, it means that you care that great things are done! It’s such a subtle, yet important distinction. 

And so it makes good sense, every now and then, to really stop ourselves and ask: why am I doing what I’m doing? And when this tendency creeps into the spiritual experience — it’s even more dangerous. And creepy. Why? 

Because spirituality, at the end of the day, is refuge from the ego. A chance to show and to feel that it’s not all about me. It’s sublimating the self to something bigger, something higher — recognizing that ultimately that’s where our fulfillment lies.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a 20th-century rabbi born in Berlin, points out that the Hebrew word for idol is “alil,” which comes from al eil, which means “nothing above.” 

To say no to idol worship, as we are commanded in this Second Commandment, is more than not prostrating yourself before a figure of wood or stone. It’s about not putting anything before or above God. Including your self—your own motives and biases. It opens us up a whole universe of connection and fulfillment and even transcendence — if only we are able to get out of our own way.

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