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moral reminders


Shabbat Yitro 5778 | February 3, 2018
Across my Twitter feed early one morning came the headline, “Science-Tested Tips to Be a Better Person.” Going all the way back to the Bible, the writer explains, people have tried to balance two pulls on human character: virtue and vice.
Each and every one of us is aware of the gap we experience between how we know we ought to behave and those times when we fall short of our highest expectations. Philosophy professor Christian Miller calls this “the character gap.”
“The good news,” Dr. Miller explains, “is that our characters aren’t carved in stone. Social science suggests several ways we can all become better people, not overnight but slowly and gradually.”
What does social science suggest, according to Dr. Miller? He cites psychological studies in which people have the chance to cheat or be honest or respond to a person in need. The results offer three behavior modification strategies. One is to find a role model whose example may inspire. Another is to strive toward greater self-esteem. And the third is to look for moral reminders.
I can find some moral reminders. Ten of them, in fact. Aseret haDibrot – Ten utterances of imperative around which we may organize our society and relationships. Each discreet statement is a mitzvah, valuable in and of itself. Brought together, the Ten Commandments are symbolic of revelation, of a moral vision for our lives.
Three months into their 40-year freedom journey from Egypt toward Israel, the Children of Israel stand poised to hear the words of God’s revelation. “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside Me.” “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Eternal your God…”
These first statements reflect our relationship with God. God redeems our lives, creates us anew. Like a parent says to a child, I made you! God cares about us, like no other could. As a parent says to a child, I love you like no one else ever will! God expects of us integrity, as a reflection of our faith and gratitude. The ultimate hope of every parent for their child, make me proud!
Building on the source of and inspiration for our lives, in the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy,” our charge is to remember Shabbat. Here, we discover a response to the character gap. We do as God did. We model our lives after the pattern of creation. We celebrate the gift of being and beauty. We rest. We stop.
In this command, the moral reminder is to make conscious choices. To exercise control in our lives. To be responsible for our behaviors. This unique gift of being human allows us to live well, especially in response to so much that we do not control, to the on-going flow, uncertainty, and majesty of life. We find our truest freedom and autonomy in self-control.
Reading through the rest of the Ten Commandments, the last five say, “don’t.” “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet.”
We all have the ability to harm, steal and lie. We also have the power to resist. To stop. The moral concern for our lives is not whether or not we can but toward what purpose we should use the strengths, abilities and opportunities of our lives. The moral message of the Ten Commandments is don’t! Don’t hurt. Don’t disrespect. Don’t misrepresent. We just don’t do those things if we want to live well together.
The moral message of the Ten Commandments, beyond the specific prohibitions, is “don’t.” At as many moments as possible, our goal is to be responsible for the best demonstration of who we are.
I fear we’ve lost this sensibility. How often do we ask ourselves how what we say or do will reflect on us, or on others associated with us? How routinely do we call on personal discipline to put our best foot forward? When do we exercise enough restraint to consider the impact of our words and deeds on others?
The Ten Commandments echo God’s voice demanding more of us than obedience. In doing some mitzvot we find beautiful moments of conscious, good behavior. In doing other mitzvot, we exercise self-control, awareness that my very next choice affirms or negates my humanity and the humanity of others.
Mitzvah isn’t only a deed. Mitzvah is also an attitude. Mitzvah is an orientation toward excellence – manifesting God’s presence among and between us. It’s just not enough to do or not do the deeds, though behavior is always our first measure in Judaism. Mitzvot require kavanah, teach our rabbis. We also have to focus on what the doing or not doing intends. On the ethic our actions portray. On the impact our decisions may have.
The Ten Commandments are moral reminders. They emerge from the religious imagination of our ancestors rather than modern social science. To bridge the character gap between noble intention and ignoble action, the Ten Commandments direct us and our hearts to be aware of our own characters and reputations. To understand who we are and where we come from. To guide us in making ourselves, our families, our society, our people, and our loved ones proud. To look forward to a time when this moral reminder comes across my Twitter feed each morning.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784