SMOKE AND MIRRORS
The stage was set. It was thundering and lightning; the sound of the shofar could be heard; smoke, clouds, fire -- all of the drama which we could possibly imagine. Hashem was about to reveal Himself and His message directly to the Jewish people.
The stage was set. It was thundering and lightning; the sound of the shofar could be heard; smoke, clouds, fire -- all of the drama which we could possibly imagine. Hashem was about to reveal Himself and His message directly to the Jewish people. But wait! After opening with a description of the greatness of G-d, His name, and His holy day of Shabbat, the commandments which follow are of the most simple and mundane nature: honor your parents, don't murder, don't steal. Is this the great revelation for which we had been waiting? Was all the drama and excitement really necessary to precede such universally accepted principles which everybody already knew?
Continuing with this week's Torah portion, immediately following the description of the Ten Commandments, we are taught mishpatim, simple moral and civil laws, the kind which any common and decent government would implement in order to run a country with efficiency and decency. After the great revelations on Mt. Sinai, shouldn't we expect commandments of a spiritual nature - perhaps relating to the construction of a temple to house the Divine presence, or prayer and the like?
The Torah is a way of life. It therefore presents to us a value system which also includes a moral guide for our day-to-day lives. In addition to the "spiritually illuminating" laws, the Torah instructs us even about elementary rules, because the basis of morality and our value system must be a divine one. It cannot be something which was decided by a human mind. Values, by definition, supersede logic. For example, giving charity is a great value and a moral thing to do, but it is not necessarily logical to give something of yours away to someone else. On the other hand, eating lunch can hardly be categorized as a moral thing to do, although it is quite logical.
If morals and values are left up to logic, there is no telling what our thought processes could lead us to. Let's take the example of stealing. Most decent people, for moral reasons, would be horrified at the notion of stealing; however, one might be logically inclined to justify the stealing of "only" ten dollars from a wealthy person, since he wouldn't miss it anyway. Other's may defend even larger thefts (or other infractions) through similar reasoning. Often the human mind will find a way to implement its own agenda, with logic eventually leading to a full breakdown of the moral fiber. Only half a century ago, such "logic" was what led the country which was supposedly the most sophisticated, advanced, and morally correct nation in the world to perpetrate the most horrifying crimes in history. The Germans logically convinced themselves that certain elements of the human race were unnecessary and useless to the future of mankind, and they carried their reasoning to its ultimate catastrophic conclusion.
This is why the Ten Commandments and the immediate laws which follow are of such a common moral and civil nature. The Torah, in addition to informing and guiding us in all spiritual and G-dly matters, emphasizes that morality and a true value system exist only when firmly established and grounded on a divine base. Stealing is prohibited because Hashem so willed it; sanctity of life is affirmed because Hashem commanded us not to murder. In order to live civilly with our fellow human beings, we must first have an unwavering belief in Hashem. Only after accepting this base, can (and must) we begin the process of understanding the laws, thus convincing our own logic of the great ethical values contained therein.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefilla and youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia. Rabbi Lew also teaches at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy middle school.
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