Every time I recall the scene of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, I am always astounded by the power and majesty of the Torah’s description. Every time I review the left-hand side of the twin tablets, those telling the human race how to behave, I am stricken with a sickening sense of failure.
Why did we need the Ten Commandments at all? (By the way – in English I prefer the word Decalogue, Greek for “The 10 words,” which is closer in meaning to the Hebrew Aseret hadibrot.) Obviously the legislation was necessary to control the evil in us.
The left-hand side recognized that the nature of man leans toward doing evil. To keep us from doing this evil, we were commanded mainly in terse two-word Hebrew utterances, “Do not!” Do not murder/kill, commit adultery, steal/kidnap, bear false witness, or lust after another person’s “possessions.”See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
(“Possessions” is in quotation marks because in today’s world a man’s wife is not a thing to be owned.) Simply put, the five commandments relating to our behavior recognize that man is bad, and tell us what we must not do in order for human life to be preserved. The body and the possessions of a person are inviolate. We may not harm any person or his/her reputation and property.
If, as tradition teaches us, the Creator gave these commandments, mankind has never listened to or obeyed them. We have broken so many of them that the High Holy Days liturgy must use a double acrostic of the 26-letter Hebrew alphabet: 52 lines, to enumerate our sins. No one is exempt. Leader and follower, rabbi and prophet, priest or layman, we have broken the commandments since Day One. If man gave these commandments, as critics believe, as a basic social covenant, he/she has totally failed.
Before I write an unpalatable fact – stop reading now, if you really want to enjoy your cake and Shabbat tea or your Shavuot cheese cake! The fact is that human evil was created by the same Hand that created good. Here’s what the inimitable Prophet Isaiah said: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (45:7) Isaiah could not be left untouched by the rabbinic censors, who used his language with an unsubtle change: The morning prayers praise God, "Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all things.” We do not want to acknowledge that evil was part of Creation.
Once we recognize the power evil exerts, created for reasons beyond my understanding, we can try to fight our evil instincts. In a world of changing values, this is not an easy task. Yesterday’s sin is today’s norm.
When we acknowledge the evil within us as individuals, we should then understand that life presents us with moral and ethical choices, day-by-day, minute-by-minute.
When, however, we look both at history and the state of the world today, we see that organized society, be it in tribes, ethnic groups, religions, countries or alliances, has never stopped war, rape, pillage, desecration of the humanity within us. Today, though, and for the last few hundred years, the killing rate has gone from hundreds to millions, to tens of millions. Man is as bad as ever, but has the tools to destroy hundreds of thousands of lives with one bomb.
Let no Jew ever say that it is the Other who has failed the test, while “we” have always been good. This is as far from the truth as the idea that the Torah has succeeded in purging our behavior from evil.
Most religions, whether explicitly or implicitly, list the five commandments on the left-hand side of the Twin Tablets in their major prohibitions. The Pentalogue goes unobserved. In short, Religion with a capital R has failed to change human nature or human behavior.
What wisdom can we draw from “Religion” then, if it has not succeeded in mitigating all the sins enumerated in the Pentalogue? For myself, I turn then to the right-hand side. I do not write of the theology of the first few commandments. I write of the humanity in the fourth and fifth commandments: to honor one’s parents and to observe the Sabbath.
My parents taught me human decency, to relate to all fellowmen and women with respect, compassion and respect for their equality, as the Sabbath law teaches us.
If I have succeeded in some of these teachings, credit my parents. If I have failed in other ways, blame me.
That is the test then, first to convey to our immediate and extended family these basic values, and then strive to inculcate them into wider circles as a second step. We can often succeed in the first circle; but after that, I ask myself, can we really influence the wider circles? We need not – indeed can never – complete this work. But we are not free to ignore it.
Beyond this, there is another commandment we must respect. If we see people doing wrong, we should rebuke them (Leviticus 19:17). That is also necessary, to delineate good from bad, and speak out against injustice.
Now we reach our starting point. We have a choice. We are in a constant struggle between the ease of doing “bad” and the effort of doing good. We can only succeed in our closer circle, if we are lucky. And persistent.
And with that, I will have some cheese cake – and continue the struggle. That is my fate and burden as a Jew. That is my fate and choice as a Jew. And the cheese cake will not be sugar-coated.
Avraham Avi-hai is a former senior public official who has tried to implement some of the things he writes about above, admittedly not always with success. The author of non-fiction as well as a novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, he is a student of Israeli and world history. 2avrahams@ gmail.com