Many years ago in my capacity as a journalist, I interviewed a very successful businessman (one of many). I asked him, a bit accusatorily, if he thought he was a nice person. With a quickfire response, he said, “Absolutely yes!” and then went on to expose the depths of his good heart by professing how deeply anguished he feels when bad things happen to good people he knows. I believed him. I could relate. You probably can too. But then I asked him if he was able in reciprocal measure to feel truly happy when he heard about great things happening to people he knows. He took a long pause. “That’s a good question,” he replied. “I don’t think I can give you an answer.
The thing is, we all think we are nice people. Some of us are just God’s gift to humanity. In fact, studies have shown than most people think they are nicer people and morally superior to the average person. The same studies proved them wrong. Yet nonetheless, as with most “sicknesses” (which is how I regard it), there’s even a name for it; it’s called ‘‘better-than-average effect.’’ Poor God must be so lonely up in heaven because it turns out that all the angels are down here on earth—us. “For from all the categories in which people think that they are superior to the person standing next to them, the magnitude of self-enhancement is strongest for moral qualities.”[i] At least now I know why you always thought you were better than me and why it thought I was better than you. My fellow angels, you’ll be comforted to discover that we are not alone in our self-evaluations and declarations of moral superiority, studies show that violent criminals consider themselves more moral than law-abiding citizens.
Now that I’m writing about this subject I can think of so many examples from my own personal life and the people in it and can recall the very familiar and oft repeated sentences in the war for the moral high ground: “Well maybe he did this for me but I did THAT for him,” “Well maybe she speaks politically correct, but at least I’m honest,” “Well if I had his money, I’d do this, that, the other thing and eleven more things.” Okay, okay you win. Just stop talking already. In our own subjective analysis of our lives and the lives of others, our halos shine the brightest. And in a world where all that counts is our own opinion and what we feel, then we are always right. In a world where I play God and manufacture the criteria for niceness and morality, then I am the champion, victor, front-runner and superstar every time.
And then there is this week’s Torah reading, parashah Yitro, where once again we are reminded that we are not God nor do we decide what the criteria are for good and bad. We are given the Ten Commandments, the only true and eternal standards to determine whether we are truly walking on moral ground or strutting in the devil’s playground. So let’s pull ourselves away from that “mirror mirror on the wall” which always says that we are the “fairest of them all,” and look at ourselves through the eyes of God. And so, my fellow angels, forget the entire 613 commandments in the Torah for the moment, have we even kept the basic Ten Commandments?
The first commandment in the Old Testament is the belief that God is the originator of all things who created this world ex nihilo: “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It is from this starting point that any of the commandments have relevance. Do you really believe in God? Yes? Great, but that’s not enough. How do you believe in Him? Do you believe in a God that owes you something or does your belief have you realizing that every second of this gift called life, you owe Him. Do you believe He is a loving God who will forgive you no matter how you live your life? Because if you do, then you believe in something, maybe Disneyland, but it’s certainly not God. If you believe in God, you’d believe that He is the Supreme audience in your life, the only important watcher in the show called “YOU” and the only eyes for which it is worth putting on a performance. And, as such, all your actions would seek only His standing ovation and not the approval of all the others in your life who apparently think they are better than you anyway. How do you believe in God? Do you believe He created the world and then disappeared? Because, the commandment tells us clearly, that He’s the God who took us out of Egypt. He is involved in our lives. The Talmud teaches that the Almighty is so intimately involved with His creations that there is not a blade of grass that does not have an angel over it saying, “grow, grow.” If the description above doesn’t sound like the God you believe in, then perhaps it’s time to question what exactly you do believe in as you’ve already broken the first commandment.
II “You shall have no other gods….” Though you may not have a golden calf in your living room, it does not mean you are guilt free of idol worship. ANYTHING that comes between you and God is an idol, including your money, your fancy lifestyle, your fear, your own arrogance and your vanity. Sometimes we even turn people into gods because we believe they are the source of our income or potential opportunities. Only God is. The sages also teach that someone who gets angry is like one who worships idols. For were a person to believe that what happens to him is of God’s doing, he would not become angry at all.[ii] All the amulets, rabbits tails, Tarots cards, and good luck charms, etc., you think they are saving you, helping you? Only God is saving you or punishing you; thinking otherwise is idol worship. “Their sorrows will multiply, those who rush after other gods….” (Psalms 16:4)
III “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” How many times have you made a promise to God and not kept it? Once that plane landed safely, your oath to be nicer to your mother vanished somewhere between the turbulence and the baggage carousel. On Yom Kippur you swore to the Almighty you’d do certain things better and then didn’t. That’s calling upon God’s name in vain and it makes you a liar. The Talmud says that God hates liars. Have you perjured yourself in traffic court or on other occasions while you swore with your hand on the Bible? Have you sworn to a friend that something was true when it wasn’t? Have you said the wrong prayer on the wrong occasion calling down God’s holy name for no reason at all? You may think it’s no big deal, but He does.
IV “Remember the seventh day and keep it holy.” Often people say I love my job, so it’s not like working on the Sabbath and it’s not hard. Very simply, nothing is hard for God. He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. You think creation was hard for Him? He rested and has commanded us to do the same. Keeping the Sabbath is an affirmation of our belief that God created the world and that He continues to create it. On the Sabbath, “Let go and let God.” Keeping the Sabbath has deep and crucial spiritual resonance. You think you are doing everything right, you know it all and have all the questions and the answers. After all you know there were no cars in the desert, so you can drive on Shabbat, right? Ok, I’ll stop here because you’re a scholar but I’ll just add that there are thirty-nine categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat. Can you list them for me please while you’re driving?[iii]
V “Honor they mother and father.” Most people think this decree means not to be rude to your parents. Plus you call them once a week so you’re awesome. Did you know you are not even allowed to sit in your parents’ chair and you are not allowed to contradict them unless they oppose the Torah teachings and even then with kid gloves? If you curse them or hit them, the Torah calls for the death penalty. This commandment doesn’t have a statute of limitations or expire when your parents pass on. Even after they die your behavior in this world reflects on them. If you behave immorally, talk bad about them, are corrupt, or, conversely, are decent to others, your behavior honors or dishonors them. Your sins and good deeds can even affect their souls. “Parents are a stand-in for God in this world and any aggression against them is tantamount to committing idolatry.” [iv] Please read more on this in my article: The Forgotten Treasures.
VI “Thou shalt not murder.” Just as you were about to raise a finger and count this as one commandment you didn’t break, know that embarrassing a person in public, according to biblical exegetes, is tantamount to murder. Breaking someone’s pride and dignity and crushing their spirit is also regarded as a form of murder. Slandering and gossiping about people can kill their reputations and ruin their lives and you can effectively kill their potential with your dagger-like tongue. In addition, wasting semen is a Torah prohibition according to all authorities and the Talmud says it is tantamount to murder. We may they think the rabbis are exaggerating, as we always do when we hate what they tell us, except that we see in the Torah that God Himself kills Judah’s sons Er and Onan for the sin of spilling seed.
VII “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Only you and God know the truth. But be certain, no excuse is good enough, not even that your own wife gained 20 pounds or that your husband doesn’t buy you flowers.
VIII “Thou shalt not steal.” You may hand back the extra bills a teller mistakenly gives you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t steal. Manipulating someone’s mind or heart is considered stealing. When you make appointments and don’t show up, your stealing people’s time. When you make salespeople believe you’re going to buy something when you have no intention to, your stealing their time and emotions. Taking small things like grapes, artificial sweeteners, and not paying, things you deem as having no value, is the reason why God destroyed the world with a flood. You’re not the only one “taking” these seemingly benign portions, it adds up, and yet the proprietor can seek no recompense and justice is subverted. Using copyrighted pictures, plagiarizing, taking credit for the work, ideas, words and creativity of others is stealing.
IX “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Perhaps you would not lie under oath, but any form of lying against another person’s good name, even to aggrandize yourself or your business is a sin. You never know where those words will land in a critical situation and they may in even lead someone to commit suicide or may have legal implications or gross financial repercussions. Don’t talk and don’t listen. “The Talmud teaches that if King David wouldn’t have listened to slander he could have avoided the break-up of his kingdom.” (ibid)
X “Though shalt not covet.” Maybe you don’t admit to lusting after your neighbor’s donkey, but have you bought things you cannot afford or simply wanted because you coveted with your heart and eyes. Have you hungered for your neighbor’s life or wife because they look better than your own? The Torah wisely admonishes you not to do so and to keep your eyes in your head. What’s divinely awesome about this commandment is that no one knows what’s in your heart, only God. So you can be the perfect hypocrite and like a pig show to the outside world that you have split hooves and are kosher and good, but on the inside, God knows exactly what you’re made of and how you digest the world around you.[v] On the inside he knows if you’re a pig! The rabbis teach that the only thing we are allowed to envy in another is their knowledge of Torah. Every other thing they have is uniquely theirs by Divine design. To covet is your way of telling God He doesn’t know what He’s doing?
Friends if we strive to live by these standards we won’t have to fight for the moral high ground. In all we do we will be living on holy ground. Stop trying to be better than the next guy, just strive to be better than yourself every day. God assures us it is not an impossible task: “For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” Instead of partaking in the 10-year challenge, why don’t you try the Ten Commandments challenge, so that in all the years ahead you will look much better than you ever have before.
[i] Social Psychological and Personality Science
[iv] Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of The Torah
[v] An animal must have BOOTH split hooves and chew its cud to be kosher. A pig has only one of these traits.