The 10 Commandments for Our Times
Now more than ever, the world can benefit from the Decalogue’s contemporary lessons.
1. I am the Lord your God…
We live in an age of cultural relativism. Secularism has turned morality into no more than a personal preference.
Sin, evil, wrongdoing are words that have lost all meaning in a world where there are no absolute truths. Today it is the critic of depraved actions who is condemned for his bigoted lack of tolerance.
How did all this happen? Dostoyevsky understood it well when he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov “Without God, all is permissible.”
“I am the Lord your God” is number one on the list of 10 because without that as #1, all you have left is zero. So too without a belief in God mankind loses its rationale for acting as noble beings created in the divine image.
2. You shall have no other gods before Me…
We worship false gods when our heroes are determined not by their values but by their financial worth. We idolize people of wealth – and so we pursue lives that will fill our bank accounts and leave our spirit barren.
We impress upon our children the goal of success – and then define it in ways that will leave them spiritually unfulfilled.
We compare the salaries of our educators and our spiritual leaders to the titans of Wall Street, the stars of the sports world and the famous entertainment figures and we have no trouble discerning what the world round about us most reveres.
To believe in God requires us to reject all the false gods of our society that seek only to still the voice of our conscience and the stirrings of our soul.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
It is more than tragic when evil is perpetrated in the name of God. It is a crime that besmirches all religion because it attributes wickedness to the Almighty.
It is the third commandment that is so brazenly violated by all the acts of terrorism ostensibly committed in the name of God.
No truly pious person could ever believe that a good God would sanction placing explosives at the finish line of a marathon race so that innocent runners would have their legs blasted off and blameless bystanders be permanently maimed or killed. No true servant of God could ever defame His holy name by using it to justify the suicide bombings and the horrific murders that have become the 21st century examples of religious fanaticism.
God has commanded us in no uncertain terms never to misuse his name for evil or to justify wickedness.
4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy
The Sabbath is far more than a day of rest. Six days a week we are concerned with the world round about us. They are the days of the six directions – East, West, North, South, above and below. The seventh day turns us inward, a day to be occupied with our private selves.
For six days we give emphasis to our bodies. The seventh day belongs to our souls.
The Sabbath, a day dedicated to a loftier vision of our true selves as seekers of contemplation and union with God, enables us to realize the purpose of all our efforts.
The burgeoning world of technology offers no rest or time for introspection. The unceasing barrage of emails, texting, surfing are weapons of mass distraction.
Can we ever call a halt to their seemingly unlimited control of our lives?
The law of the Sabbath tells us it is not only possible but mandatory. The Sabbath not only enables us to become reacquainted with God but with ourselves as well.
5. Honor your father and your mother…
It’s been reported that today the one thing people fear more than death is old age.
“Ageism” is the word that’s been coined to identify our societies negative stereotyping of the elderly. When the Bible spoke of “the elders of Israel,” it was meant to compliment those with greater wisdom. Today, age is identified with a period of incompetency as well as physical and mental deterioration. To be old in our culture is very often nothing less than a curse.
How far from the biblical view that demands respect for the aged and honor for one’s own parents. How is it that all teenagers today are so certain they know far more about life than the ones who raised them? And why is it that every child is automatically entitled to everything by parents – but when parents years later find themselves in need so often are denied the help they so freely gave to their children?
Honoring parents appears on the same tablet set aside for commandments between man and God. Why? The Rabbis answer because just like God, our parents shared in creating us.
6. You shall not murder
Murder is forbidden, no matter what the motive. The 20th century witnessed the legitimization of murder on racial grounds. Only pure blooded Aryans were granted the right to live by the barbaric leaders of the German Third Reich. The 21st century finds civilization threatened once more by those who justify murder on the basis of religious conviction. Both of these threats to the survival of civilization were clearly addressed and outlawed by the sixth commandment.
7. You shall not commit adultery
There was a time when people understood that marriage meant commitment and vows of mutual fidelity were the greatest guarantors of lifelong happiness.
There was a time when people understood that true love was a necessary prerequisite for intimacy and that kiddushin, the Hebrew word for marriage meaning holiness, was the ideal way to describe the perfect union between a man and a woman.
It takes courage to defy a culture that glamorizes sexual promiscuity and glorifies its obsession with pornography. Our over-sexualized society teaches our young to believe that physical pleasure is our greatest good and sexiness trumps character, intelligence and all other human achievements. From casual sex and hookups to adulterous unions, contemporary America has traded the seventh commandment for licentiousness and immorality – only to pay the price of broken homes, unfulfilled fantasies and the grief that comes from breaking the divine laws God taught us for achieving true happiness.
8. You shall not steal
For the Talmud, theft means far more than the taking of someone else’s property. We steal from others whenever we don’t live up to our obligations, whenever we do not give full value for any work for which we receive payment.
No wonder that sociologists tell us that stealing has become a national problem of epidemic proportions. The Robert Half Personnel Agencies has calculated that “Time-theft will cost the American economy as much as $70 billion a year.” Time-theft is defined as “those deliberate employee actions which result in the massive, growing misuse and waste of time. Estimated time-theft are: arriving to work late, leaving early, taking unjustified ‘sick’ days, extensive socializing with co-workers, turning the water cooler into a conversation pit, inattention to the job at hand, reading novels and magazines on the job, operating a business on the side during working hours, eating lunch at the desk and then going out for the ‘lunch hour,’ excessive personal phone calls, on-the-job daydreaming and fantasizing, long, frequent coffee and snack breaks, etc.”
No matter what our job, if we’re not conscientious enough to fulfill it to the best of our ability we are in violation of the eighth commandment.
9. You shall not bear false witness
Words are weapons. They can heal but they can also kill. Bearing false witness belongs on the same tablet as the sin of murder. And it is a mistake to assume that the commandment concerns itself only with testimony given in a courtroom. Far more frequently it is a sin committed on a daily basis by way of harmful speech, spiteful slander, malicious rumors and hurtful gossip.
Words can destroy reputations. They can kill friendships. They can hurt the victims of their cruel barbs more severely than a prison sentence handed down by a judge in a court of law.
Gossip, it’s been aptly said, is no less than social sewage for the ears. Yet our culture today makes it the major focus of our media and a constant theme of our conversations. For the Torah, it was more than sin; it was sickness – a disease similar to leprosy that required those guilty of slander to be punished with isolation.
It’s a good idea to remember this famous aphorism of Eleanor Roosevelt: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
10. You shall not covet
It is the last commandment that commentators explain is meant to bring us to the highest level of holiness. It demands not only that we control our actions and our speech, but even our thoughts. It addresses a universal human failing and obviously believes that we can overcome it.
If the desire for something is based on need, then fulfillment brings contentment. If the goal, however, is simply to have more than everyone else, then we are doomed to disappointment and to ever-greater dissatisfaction. There’s always somebody who has something we don’t — which is enough to stir up within us envy to prevent us from being content with what is ours. That’s why coveting consumes its practitioner.
In the most profound sense, those who covet fail to acknowledge the powerful truth that there is enough in this world to satisfy everyone’s need but there’s never enough to satisfy people’s greed.
Shavuot brought us this gift of the Decalogue. No other summary of law has so brilliantly encapsulated a prescription for living a life that is both personally fulfilling and spiritually rewarding. And that is almost certainly why these laws were given as commandments, not as suggestions.