More than any atheist’s argument, I would suggest that the main thing that prevents more people from becoming religiously active is the existence of too many identifiably religious people who do not model proper behavior.

If noted atheist Sam Harris, for example, were caught being involved in a shady real estate transaction, no one could accuse Harris of being hypocritical. Since, by definition, atheistic values are not eternal (since the values come from man, and man is fallible, what was immoral in a previous generation might be deemed moral in this), Harris could always fall back on, “What I deemed to be immoral yesterday I deem moral today. Have a great day.” What right would we have to declare what he now deems moral as, in fact, immoral? Harris would not necessarily reflect badly on atheism as a whole, since there is no objective standard to which we can compare any individual atheist’s behavior. To each his own, literally.

Not so with religious people. We do have an objective standard to which we can hold them accountable. For Jews and Christians, at least, it is called the Bible. When a religious person acts in a way contrary to Biblical values, we can cite chapter and verse to him, saying, “How can you act like that? What about this verse from Deuteronomy which warns against this action?” As opposed to the atheist, when a religious person behaves badly, he reflects poorly not only on himself, not only on his family, but also on his faith, and even on God Himself. Is this fair? No. But such is life.

The supreme importance of religious people modeling proper behavior in their interpersonal relationships is hinted at in the very first line of Parashat Mishpatim. God has just finished transmitting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in Parashat Yitro, in which He spent ten verses on commandments between man and God, and three verses on commandments regulating intra-human relationships. Immediately after this, the Torah proceeds to describe the manner in which the sacrificial altar must be built. Then begins Parashat Mishpatim: “These are the rules that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). Who is “them”? The usual understanding is that “them” is the Israelites. God is directing Moses to instruct the Israelites regarding various laws. In a clever word play, the Kli Yakar (R’ Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619, Prague) suggests that “them” is not referring to the Israelites, but rather to the God-centered laws which have just been transmitted. Interpreted this way, the verse can be understood, “These are the rules which come before the God-centered laws.”

In other words, says the Kli Yakar, before one focuses on interacting properly with God, one must first focus on interacting properly with one’s fellow man. As a famous line from the Jewish tradition puts it, “דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה/Derech eretz kadma la’Torah” (Good behavior comes before the Torah). Just as most parents, if given the choice, would much prefer their children relating well to each other than relating well to the parent, so too God prefers His children to get along with each other, rather than get along with Him.

Being religiously observant has many challenges. Aside from the numerous time-, monetary-, and social obligations, religious people have an additional burden to bear. They must be worthy emissaries of their specific faith to the general population. They not only represent themselves, but also God. To be good representatives, they must treat God’s children with dignity and respect. For when they deal kindly with God’s children, they give honor not only to them, but also to the One who created them.

(Based on ב. יאושזון, מאוצרנו הישן – שמות-ויקרא, p. 118)