(February 7, 2023 / JNS) Where I live in Johannesburg there is a famous story from some decades ago about the conductor of a shul choir who was rehearsing with his choristers. In that synagogue, the Berea Shul, the choir room was above the Holy Ark and the conductor was struggling to see the cantor.
The cantor was downstairs on the bimah, and there were large, beautifully designed panels of the two tablets with the Ten Commandments in front of the choir room, which were obstructing his line of vision. The conductor, Gus Levy, shouted, “I can’t see you, chazan. The Ten Commandments are in my way.”
Whereupon the esteemed spiritual leader who had just walked into the shul, Rabbi Yirmya Aloy, responded, “Gus, the Ten Commandments are in everyone’s way!”
And they are indeed.
Here’s a question: The Ten Commandments begin with the profound, philosophical and abstract. They state the loftiest ideas and principles of faith and commitment to the one God. In the second tablet, however, the commandments suddenly move from the sublime to the sinful and then into the mire of human degradation: murder, adultery, stealing, lying and jealousy. One wonders how such radically different and contrasting types of commandments made it on to the same list.
But if you think about it, we need only cast our eyes back some 80 years to see that without the first commandments of faith and belief in one God and His absolute moral authority, we can tumble down the slippery slope of human degeneracy all too quickly.
This descent is called “rationalization.” The human mind can justify absolutely anything at all. Even the most heinous crimes in history. So, the Nazis “justified” nothing less than genocide by declaring Jews to be subhuman, the scum of the earth. They actually argued that they were doing a service to society by eliminating such lowly vermin from the planet.
It is mind-boggling that such a “civilized” center of European science, art and culture engineered the single most savage and horrific liquidation campaign the world has ever known.
Today, the likes of Hamas continue this ignoble tradition. They believe it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to murder innocent civilians leaving a synagogue on the Sabbath because the victims are supposedly the evil “occupiers.”
In our personal lives, rationalization is at work as well: “You say I am committing adultery? But she’s locked in a loveless marriage. I’m helping her. I think I’m actually doing a mitzvah!”
Whether it’s cheating, lying or stealing, human beings can come up with excuses and explanations to rationalize anything and everything. The human mind can distort the most vile and evil perversions into acceptable and worthy endeavors.
Only if morality is absolute will it be non-negotiable. Only if it comes from a higher authority, who alone is the true arbiter of right and wrong, can it endure untainted and inviolate. Otherwise, we quickly slip into the morass of moral equivalence.
If our moral code is decided by referendum or by what happens to be deemed acceptable or unacceptable by the society of the day, then that code will surely dissolve and disintegrate with the passage of time and change of locale. Devoid of divinity, morality becomes meaningless.
The first commandments are the bedrock of everything. They enable and empower us to fulfil the others. “I am the Lord your God” and therefore “you shall not murder”—or commit adultery, steal, lie and envy.
The Ten Commandments were not given solely to help us acquire a place in heaven, but rather to lead a good, decent life here on earth.
Only by appreciating that our moral code comes from an unbiased and objective authority that is divine, absolute and therefore closed to referendums or the “flavor of the month” can we maintain a moral and ethical way of life.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.
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