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Taking the Ten Commandments to Heart

Consider the injustices dispensed by the religious establishment, claiming to speak in the name of God
Illustrative: In this 1986 photo, the Ten Commandments are flanked by two lions. (courtesy)
Illustrative: In this 1986 photo, the Ten Commandments are flanked by two lions. (courtesy)

As we approach Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, I am reminded of a panel on which I served several years ago to discuss the contemporary relevance of the Ten Commandments. The moderator opened the evening with a simple question: “Which commandment is most relevant in Israel today?”

I selected the commandment to honor one’s parents, which, I said, could be understood not only as an instruction to respect one’s mother and father, but as a charge to honor the past. “We are obsessed with forging our own ways, developing technological breakthroughs, and looking ahead,” I said, “but the Torah commands us to look back before we move forward.”

Other panelists explained their choices. One suggested that Judaism had become overly ritualized, and Orthodox Jews so preoccupied with the intricacies of Halacha (Jewish law), that Judaism was leaving God out of the conversation, ignoring the First Commandment, “I am the Lord Your God.”

Another described the need to realign our moral compasses to the three commandments that instruct us not to covet. Another believed Judaism’s main challenge was to share the value of Shabbat — of taking time out from phones, computers, and mundane concerns — to bring balance back to the world.

The last panelist, Baruch Kra of Israel’s Channel 10 News, made the biggest and most lasting impression. He argued that the commandment we most need to take to heart in Israel today is the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. Baruch described the injustices members of today’s Israeli religious establishment dispense in the name of God, and called for true religious leaders driven by moral clarity instead of political power, who will lead by example instead of coercion, and will promote eternal values rather than engage in petty politics, in order to sanctify God’s name.

As we celebrate the giving of the Torah, let us remind ourselves as individuals, communities, and a nation, of our commitment to the fundamental principles of our tradition, not the least of which is to sanctify God’s name through our actions.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth Farber is Founder and Director of ITIM, the leading advocacy organization working to build a Jewish and democratic Israel in which all Jews can lead full Jewish lives. ITIM is committed to helping people participate in central features of Jewish life in Israel, such as gaining official recognition as Jews, marrying as Jews, and converting to Judaism, and to improving government policies that impede access to these fundamental Jewish life passages.
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