A Forgotten Past Means a Discarded Future

To know where we’re going, we need to remember where we’ve been

Have you ever forgotten an anniversary? If you did, you probably didn’t forget another one any time soon.  Anniversaries are not merely excuses to give and get presents. They honor milestones, celebrate shared history, and provide a sense of renewed commitment to our most meaningful relationships.

This is true personally, religiously, and nationally.  Can you imagine even a casual Christian forgetting Christmas or Easter?  A Moslem forgetting Ramadan?  An American neglecting the 4th of July or a Frenchman ignoring Bastille Day?

Among Jews, even the most secularized typically cling to some vestige of historical tradition.  If nothing else, they still reenact the Exodus from Egypt on Passover, fast on Yom Kippur, or kindle the menorah lights on Chanukah.

What is remarkable, however, is how many overlook the most significant Jewish holiday of the year.

50 days after departing from Egypt, between 2 and 3 million Jews stood at the foot of Sinai and received the fundamental principles of moral law – the Ten Commandments, the most concise and influential summary of legal and moral axioms the world has ever known. That event is commemorated each year on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan with the holiday of Shavuos, the Festival of Weeks.

The sages compare Passover to the Jewish people’s betrothal to the Almighty, and Shavuos to the wedding ceremony itself.  But revelation at Sinai was not merely about the Jews.  It was about the elevation of mankind toward the highest ideals of moral and spiritual refinement.  It was history’s most singular moment in the advancement of human society.

Without the influence of Jewish values and tradition, writes historian Thomas Cahill,

“We would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”

The Ten Commandments – literally, in Hebrew, the Ten Statements – do more than establish the principles of right and wrong that support civil society.  They teach us that morality is not a product of human logic or intuition but is founded on absolute truths as immutable as the laws of nature that govern the physical universe.  Even the most self-evident rules — like don’t murder and don’t steal — do not derive from human conscience but establish the underpinnings of ethical awareness and sensitivity that keep our collective conscience well-tuned and accurately aligned.

Oddly enough, the gentile world has retained a deeper appreciation of Jewish cultural influence than much of the Jewish community.  Historian Paul Johnson echoed sentiments expressed by John Adams, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill when he wrote,

“To [the Jews] we owe the ideas of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience, and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience, and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal, and love as the foundation of justice; and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”

The Jews did not invent these principles; they are merely the messengers.  And the message originated at a mountain called Sinai.

On May 29th this year, Jews who remember their heritage will observe the most existential holiday on the Hebrew calendar.  The freedom celebrated on Passover is only a gift if applied toward the development of moral discipline and the pursuit of truth, kindness, and justice.  The atonement of Yom Kippur is only meaningful as an expression of recommitment to the ideals of spiritual aspiration.  The kindling of the Chanukah candles serves to inspire only with the understanding that the light of divine wisdom alone can dispel the darkness of ignorance, prejudice, and ideological tribalism.

The Ten Commandments were not bequeathed merely to the Jews.  They are the legacy inherited by the billions of monotheistic people of the world, by every citizen who has benefited from the development of Western Civilization, and by all who have discovered within themselves a love for virtue and a commitment to collective responsibility.

In a world increasingly divided by shrill voices of demigods and demagoguery, by partisanship and acrimony, by extremism and intolerance, it is worth remembering the common values that were handed down to mankind in an empty desert 3,330 years ago this month.  It’s worth recovering the humility that allows us to respect those different from ourselves, to contemplate unfamiliar viewpoints, and to acknowledge that truth is not a product of our own intellect or instinct, but a reality that we need to continuously seek if we want to live in harmony and preserve the light of human nobility.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Thanks a lot, Sir Yonason Goldson, for this very important message surrounding the significance of Passover! In your own words, “it’s worth recovering the humility that allows us to respect those different from ourselves, to contemplate unfamiliar viewpoints, and to acknowledge that truth is not a product of our own intellect or instinct, but a reality that we need to continuously seek if we want to live in harmony and preserve the light of human nobility.”

    Given the significance of your enlightened message, we need to seek the reality, and imbibe true human values as a precondition to be considered worthy of celebrating any festival, per any faith or religious ideology, right? What good is any religion that fails to bestow on every follower true human values?

    How else could we recover true humility?

    How could we ever ”live in harmony and preserve the light of human nobility” without letting go of the hardliners forcing the implementation of various do’s and don’ts? I dare say this because we have chosen to contain the most important message within the confines of the scriptures, with no intent to follow it in life and spirit.

    Is it not a fact that the exact same story repeated by the same person after a lapse of a couple of years, or even months for that matter, will see a marked change? Or, the same story narrated by ten different persons in ten different scenarios will use ten different ways to convey the same message? Is it not especially much easier to convince those not literate enough to read the scriptures by themselves and understand their meaning at length?

    Then how is the public at large supposed to believe that each and every word of the Millennium’s old events as the word of the Gospel, is presented in congregations, through the narrator’s’ personal viewpoints, devoid of any deviation? More often than not, we fail to see their hidden agenda and fall unsuspecting prey to their evil designs.

    Call me a heretic if you like, but I believe in the main message, the ultimate result, and that relates to our conduct as true human beings, with no malice towards anyone. Let us make a concerted effort to pull down every barrier of religious distinction and live in perfect harmony like never seen before.

    It is truly shameful we are led en masse by vested interests to the slaughterhouse in the name of religion day in and day out.

    It is my personal opinion, with all due respect to every religious group (I won’t even dare mention my own faith, because I am on a mission to become a real human being, first and foremost) that we must pull down the self-imposed barriers and get out of the blindfold that religious fanatics continue to force on our eyes and brains for their self-serving ego.

    Happy Passover, today and every day, so long as we commit ourselves to honor and respect the Real Gift from G-D!

    Thanks, once again, with Warm Regards, and a Prayer for All

    • Faith is always a struggle, Jeff. That’s why I prefer the term faithfulness, which is a more faithful translation of the Hebrew word emunah. When Mother Teresa’s private diaries were found after her death, many were astonished to read about how she struggled with her doubts and question. But her uncertainties never stopped her from faithfully living according to the values and teachings of her tradition. It’s that struggle that leads to a saintly life.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to struggling together.

    • Yonason – For me, it is less about living with “uncertainty” than it is living with “contradiction.” I see people who profess to believe in God and the teachings of their faith to be among the most intolerant of those who are different from their narrow scope of what is “right” or “socially acceptable.” Did God and his disciples in any religion teach discrimination? Whatever happened to live and let live? I see gross hypocrisy in how many people of faith lead their lives.

      I see religion used as a political tool – pandering to the faithful to get votes – by those who extremely unreligious.

      I see religions historically ignoring one of the 10 Commandments – thou shalt not kill – in the belief that their religion is superior to another.

      I see religious leaders living opulent lives while asking the poor among their parishioners for money and more money.

      It is not values and teachings I struggle with, those that you outlined in your piece, as much as how they are “practiced” or ignored by the “faithful.”

      Thanks for dialoguing.

    • I appreciate your apprehensions and reservations, Jeff, and have shared many of them myself. Like any tool — whether a feather duster or a sledgehammer — religion can be used responsibly or irresponsibly, yielded for either good or evil. Religion does not make us perfect; it provides the methodology for us to make ourselves perfect.

      As human beings, it’s part of our nature to focus on the negative. But how much good has come into the world through religious values? Even now, amidst the current crisis, how many stories of kindness and charity and selflessness do we hear? Even the most ardent secularist cannot deny the influence of religion in shaping the noble ideals are now attributed to egalitarianism and humanism.

      Think of spirituality like nuclear energy: it can bring illumination and power to the world and drive the advance of civil society, or it can produce destruction and devastation. It all depends on how we use it.

      I’ve experienced personally many acts of betrayal and faithlessness from people espousing faith, and witnessed many more in my own life and in my study of history. Human beings don’t stop being human beings simply because the Almighty made His will known to us. The divine word only benefits us when we respond to its call by summoning the divinity within ourselves and committing ourselves to live up to the standards of G-dliness.

    • Yonason — I sincerely appreciate your perspective. It gives me much to think about, not the least of which is my “negative” mindset. And it is negative on this topic. The hypocrisy for me has always loomed larger than the acts of divinity. I will try to focus on the latter.

  2. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and I’m aware of the significance of Judaism. Without the Jewish faith, their would have been no Catholicism. I can’t admit to being a religious person anymore, but that doesn’t change the beauty of this piece. I can read that the words come from your heart and I can’t (and won’t) deny any of the truths so elegantly represented. Thank you for sharing this important piece. I’m a better person for having digested it.