23 Shevat 5781
February 5, 2021
“The entire people responded together and said, ‘Everything that God has spoken we will do!'” (Ex. 19.8) With these words from this week’s portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), we commit ourselves collectively to the same covenant to which our ancestors committed themselves individually. In this portion is the revelation at Sinai — the culmination of that covenant — and the Ten Commandments.
As we are all aware, the political discourse in our nation has been divisive and downright malicious to each opposing side. The Ten Commandments teach us, in the ninth one, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (20.13). What does this mean? In its strictest sense, of course, this means not to commit perjury. It has been expanded to prohibit slander and lying in general. The statements that are made on both sides of the political aisle are often inflammatory against the other, and often filled with half-truths or outright lies. I want to serve the Jewish community; not the red side and blue side – and I must remain faithful to our shared Jewish values, making sure that I remain true to the lessons of our traditions.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: The prohibition of false testimony is the precondition of justice. A just society needs more than a structure of laws, courts and enforcement agencies. As Judge Learned Hand said, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” There is no freedom without justice, but there is no justice without each of us accepting individual and collective responsibility for “telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
The Ten Commandments are a contract between God and humanity – a contract that becomes a covenant. In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about “Me” and “You”; covenants are about “Us.”
The American covenant has held our nation together despite, in Lincoln’s day, a civil war, and at other times, civil and economic strife, and its renewal will do likewise in the future. In Moses’ day it allowed the Israelites to become “one nation under God” despite their division into twelve tribes. Covenants create unity without uniformity. They value diversity but, rather than allowing a group to split into competing factions, they ask each to contribute something uniquely theirs to the common good. Out of multiple Me’s they create an overarching Us. May we renew the commitment to one other in sacred partnership and ensure that we do not perpetuate falsehoods.