Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
In the midst of various ethical scandals that plagued the country during the time of Harry Truman’s presidency, someone asked him if he thought there was a need to enact rules of ethical standards for those in government and public service. He replied that we still had the Ten Commandments and that should be enough.
I thought of President Truman this week because this week’s Torah portion contains the second time in the five books of Moses that the Jewish people were given those famous Ten Commandments as ethical rules by which to live.
“I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” With these words the God of the ancient Jewish people once again reminds us that God is not something to believe in, but rather something to directly experience. We were slaves and we went free. Few experiences on Earth are more powerful, more intimate, more inspirational and memorable than that.
I still remember the excitement that lit up all of Europe when the Berlin Wall crumbled. I stood on top of that wall myself a few years ago, and you can still look to the right and left and the stark differences you see are powerful reminders of the steep price people are willing to pay for freedom. On one side of the wall had been the West, filled with the promise of hope and freedom and prosperity. On the other side, East Berlin, cloaked in darkness - stark, harsh and oppressive.
I have a remarkable picture of myself standing on what remains of the Berlin Wall. What makes it remarkable is not so much the stark contrast that you can readily see from one side to the other. What makes it memorable is that I stood on that wall hand in hand with three other rabbis – one Reform, one Conservative and one Orthodox. And we reminded ourselves of this week’s Torah portion – that we didn’t go free from the slavery and oppression of Egypt as “denominations,” but simply as Jews.
In fact, we didn’t even go forth to freedom only as Jews. We were a “mixed multitude” of Jews and non-Jews, people from all backgrounds who were united in one thing: the dream of freedom and the recognition that whatever God is must fundamentally be found in every expression of human freedom, dignity and community.
So we are reminded that we directly experience God every time we help another to be free. Every time we help another to throw off the chains of personal oppression, whether political oppression, economic oppression or spiritual oppression.
And we are reminded that God is not some abstract idea or concept that is beyond our understanding, but rather as close and intimate as our own hearts and souls. “If you search for God you will find God, if only you seek God with all your heart and soul,” says the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:29). The ethical challenges that the Ten Commandments represent are just as powerful, just as relevant, and just as challenging for us as individuals and as a community today as they were three thousand years ago when Moses first brought them down the mountain.
(Check out www.rebreuben.com, www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).
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