The Children of Israel are assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai. Until this moment, Moses has been YHVH’s spokesman, relaying YHVH’s messages to both the enslaved Children of Israel, and also to Pharaoh, the tyrant who is their captor. YHVH is about to address the Children of Israel directly and collectively for the very first time. This is YHVH’s big chance, as it were, to introduce him/herself to these people to whom YHVH has chosen to reveal the Torah. Imagine yourself meeting someone very important to you for the first time. I don’t know, your girlfriend or your boyfriend’s parents, or your new boss. They have heard all about you, or read your resume, but you have never actually met. What’s your opening line? How will you describe yourself to them, so that they know what is most important about you?
This particular line of thought leads to a number of embarrassing memories of mine. But enough about me, I’m much more mature now.
The mountain is shaking and smoking, and YHVH has the people’s full attention. “And God said: I am YHVH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
Note that God does not introduce God’s self by saying, “I am YHVH, Creator of heaven and earth.” No, first YHVH wants us to know that YHVH is our God. Not an impersonal, cosmic creative force but an energy that is in direct relationship with us, a moral force that cares about our choices and our fate.
Secondly, God wants us to know right away that God is the power that liberates slaves, that liberates us. That there is a power in the universe that opposes oppression and cruelty, and redeems the oppressed.
Implicit in this self-description is that there is a right and a wrong; that YHVH’s actions are not capricious but rather are based on a moral standard; and that YHVH judges human actions on that standard.
Since the Torah describes us humans as made in God’s image, that means that we too have the potential to fit this self-description: we too are expected to know right from wrong, and to judge our actions based on a moral law. We too are expected to engage with the world, to oppose oppression and cruelty, and to work to redeem the downtrodden.
This all may sound like old hat, but when Moses introduced these teachings they were revolutionary. At the risk of overgeneralizing, but to make this point: YHVH is a new kind of God: one who cares passionately about human beings, his special creations; a God who expects us to live up to our potential as moral actors in the world, and who judges humanity based not on the gifts we bring to the altar but on our righteousness.
I have been reminded of these crucial truths by an excellent book I have been reading, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, by David Hazony. Hazony’s goal is to explore the Ten Commandments as a living guide, rather than the literally carved in stone and unexamined symbol that they have become. In so doing, he highlights the central contribution of the ancient Jewish worldview to contemporary Western Civilization: that we humans have the capacity to build a better and more just world – a more perfect union – and that it is our duty to try.
Hazony describes Western Civilization as a hybrid of two ancient, very different, but complementary spirits:
“There is, first, the spirit of reason, which promotes rational decision making, dispassionate analysis, creative expression, and open speech, leading us to arrive at good answers in our public and private lives. We have inherited this from the Greeks, by way of the Enlightenment, and it has served us well, helping forge the greatest deliberative discourse and the most technologically advanced society in human history.
But there is a second democratic spirit as well. We may call it the spirit of redemption. This spirit, inherited from the ancient Israelites by way of British and early American thought, has given democratic peoples the belief that every individual can change the world for the better, can take action against apathy, ineptitude, and corruption in order to improve his lot and that of his loved ones, and can combine with others to create communities – not just communities of faith but communities dedicated to making things better, communities of action. The spirit of redemption, grounded in the Ten Commandments and expressed throughout the prophetic teachings, calls on us to be dissatisfied with our world, to be vigilant, and, when necessary, to do battle against those who aim to harm it, from within or without. It is the idea not only that good can triumph over evil, but that every person has the ability, and therefore the obligation, to take up the struggle.”
Hazony sees the spirit of redemption – the belief that we can make a difference in the world, and that our moral choices matter – as being in retreat in our society today, weakened by various powerful social, technological and political trends that I will not elaborate upon now. But I find very helpful his schematic of Western Civilization as a hybrid of Greek and Biblical thought.
So, we are heirs to two traditions, and I think we need to uplift them both. From the Greek tradition, Socrates was on trial for the corrupting of youth. As he chose death over exile as his punishment, Socrates famously and courageously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Self-awareness, inquiry, philosophical and empirical study and reflection are human attributes that lead to our fullest self-realization: these are our legacy from Greek civilization.
From the Jewish tradition, when God confides to Abraham that God intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham famously and courageously stands up to God and declares: “What if innocent people reside there? Will not the judge of all the world deal justly?” Abraham risks his life to stand up for the innocent and to defend the right, even before the judge of all the world. Paraphrasing Socrates, we might say that the message from the Torah is, “The morally disengaged life is not worth living.” Moral courage, the belief that all humans possess this capacity, and the faith that history’s outcomes can be influenced by our redemptive actions: these are our legacy from Judaism.
As a Reconstructionist Jew, I follow the central dictum of our founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: as Jews we must embrace the best of our own heritage and the best of the larger civilizations in which we reside. Thus, I eagerly embrace the legacy of rational inquiry that Socrates and the Enlightenment bring to our world. And I also embrace the passionate moral engagement with the world that Judaism insists upon. I do not see these legacies in opposition to each other, as so much of our culture wars insist, but rather in continuous and energetic dialogue, informing our discourse, our self-reflection, and our desire to take the right and best actions in our lives.
Yom Kippur’s other name is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. If our actions didn’t matter, if there was no moral standard that we were trying to live up to, then we would need no Day of Judgment. The very fact that we are here today means that we still carry the ancient faith that our actions matter, that the morally disengaged life is not worth living. We sense the demand, we engage with our world, and we hold ourselves to a righteous standard, even if that makes life at times more difficult, more tiring, and less pleasant. We judge ourselves today, and that is a good thing. Have we lived up to our ideals? Have we treated others the way we would wish to be treated? Have we wrestled with doing the right thing in an exceedingly complex world?
This is our task on Yom Kippur. This is our timeless Jewish call, to be morally engaged. Tomorrow we will hear the stunning ancient words of Isaiah, who spoke to his Jewish community in the land of Israel on a Yom Kippur nearly 3,000 years ago, relaying the words of our demanding God. After berating the worshippers for thinking that by showing up and fasting they get a free pass, Isaiah proclaimed:
This is the fast I ask for [says the Holy One]:
To unlock the shackles of evil,
To loosen the thongs of the yoke,
To send forth crushed souls to freedom,
To tear every yoke in two!
To tear up your loaves for the hungry,
To bring the poor wanderer home,
When you see the naked, clothe them,
When you see your own flesh and blood, do not turn aside!
If from your midst you remove
The oppressive yoke, the menacing hand, the abusive words,
If you reach out to the soul of the hungry,
If you ease the soul of the bruised,
The your light will burst forth like the morning,
And new flesh will soon cover your wounds;
Your reputation for justice will precede you
And the glory of God will follow close behind.
Complacency is not the Jewish way. May our consciences continue to be unsettled when we confront injustice. May the remembrance of God’s voice at Sinai stir us to action. May we always strive to be morally engaged with this world that we love so much.