The Sinai Legacy
Among thinkers there is
a standing debate whether the calling of our time is freedom or order.
Some argue that the best
hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in the entire world.
Others disagree, saying that we live in a world that is mostly free, and the
challenge for much of the world is not the will for democracy but the capacity
to build and sustain a stable, effective and decent government, to deal with
civil strife, extreme poverty and disease, which overwhelms not only democracy
but order itself. The author of American liberty, James Madison, wrote in
The Federalist papers that “in framing a government which is to be administered
by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable
the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to
control itself.” Order and then liberty.
Look at our economic crisis
today. We live in a free country, but unfettered freedom has allowed for reckless
behavior, abuse of power, betrayal of trust – all contributing to our current
meltdown, which has driven our financial systems to the brink. Many are calling
for a major infusion of governmental intervention – and indeed this is the
policy of President Obama’s administration – to restore discipline and order
to a frayed marketplace, even if it means compromising some of the liberties
of the free market.
It’s actually a fascinating
question: Which comes first – freedom or organization? Marx, for instance,
argued that first order would have to be imposed to control the transition
from the “capitalist” model of private ownership and class struggles to the
“socialist” revolution of equality, which would emancipate the masses.
In theory this sounds
logical. Which is why socialism initially attracted so many progressive thinkers.
However, in practice those imposing order became the worst abusers of power
and savagely abolished all basic human freedoms – all in the name of some
“future” vision of equality.
On the other hand, the
contrary argument seems to be equally legitimate: How does freedom help people
if they are plagued by poverty, disease and corruption? What benefit do we
have from freedom when greedy people, in a free market, can manipulate and
bring down the economy, in effect undermining the security of millions of
innocents due to the selfishness of a few? Freedom must come together with
a system of implementation.
Seems like an unsolvable
conundrum. But not quite.
The logical thing to do
is to retrace the steps to the earliest roots of freedom and the first establishment
of a government that honors the individual rights of all its citizens.
That root goes back 3317
years ago to Sinai. At Sinai the human race received its mandate how to build
a civilized world.
Two major revolutions
took place at Sinai.
First and foremost Sinai
declared that G-d gave us freedom. The Ten Commandments begin with the statement:
“I am your G-d who delivered you from [the bondage in] Egypt.” The sages explain
that Egypt in Hebrew (Mitzrayim) refers to all forms of slavery and
confinement, anything that inhibits human freedom.
Then the remaining nine
Commandments declared at Sinai define the system that we must build to maintain
our freedom and construct a civilized universe (“Thou shall not murder,” “Thou
shall not steal,” etc.)
The opening of the Bible
(Torah) formalized at Sinai states that the human being was created in the
Divine Image. By this virtue each of us has unalienable rights. Once that
axiom is in place then we have the solid foundation upon which all law and
order stands: The Divine authority that has endowed us all with fundamental
freedom and with a moral system by which to live.
Take away the bedrock
of the first commandment, all else inevitably falls. With no Creator imbuing
us with absolute freedom and defining for us a blueprint for life, all morality
becomes arbitrary and relative. Case in point: The Nazis defied “though shall
not murder” only because they first defied the first commandment of accepting
G-d Who gave us all life and freedom. Instead, they chose to “play G-d” and
arbitrarily decide who has a right to live and who not.
That is the first Sinai
revolution: The bestowal of freedom on all human beings.
To appreciate this revolutionary
message one need only look at human history: Until a few hundred years ago
basic human rights that we take today for granted simply were not respected
in virtually every country in the world! Monarchs, despots, religious authorities
ruled in totalitarian regimes that controlled every aspect of their subjects’
Notwithstanding all history’s
“growing pains,” at Sinai the universe received the mandate of freedom and
the blueprint of civilization. 3321 years ago Sinai set in motion a series
of events that would change the world forever, and continues to impact our
It would take three millennia
before Sinai would begin to breed countries that would embrace its message
in their system of government. In the 18th century, the United
States as well as many European countries, began to champion the fundamental
principles of Sinai: All people are created equal with inalienable rights
In the last three centuries
freedom has continued to spread, to the point that in 1972, when Freedom House
began its practice of ranking countries on a scale of free and unfree, it
placed 54 (of the world’s 149) in the unfree category, with scores of 6 or
more (with 7 being the most unfree). Today only 25 of the world’s 192 countries
score 6 or higher.
The second revolution
that took place at Sinai was even greater than the first:
Before Sinai there was
an impenetrable rift between heaven and earth, between matter and spirit.
An invisible wall separated between the transcendental and the material. A
decree, a schism separated between above and below. “That which was above
could not descend below, and that which was below could not ascend above.”
At Sinai the world changed. Heaven was unplugged. Sinai opened
a door, never again to be closed, that allows mortals in a material world
to become Divine. For the first time the human race was given the opportunity
to bridge heaven and earth – to fuse spirit and matter. It gave us the power
to spiritualize the material, and to make our lives sacred, not just ethical.
This was no small event.
theologians and lay people have all always asked the eternal question: How
high can a human being reach? Are we humans just sophisticated beasts, with
limited potential? Can we ever reach heaven and beyond or bring heaven down
to earth? Can we integrate spirituality into our material lives? Can we fuse
the finite and the infinite?
The fact is that matter
and spirit are in a perpetual struggle. Narcissism, greed, corruption are
staples of life. When we look at ourselves each of us knows that we often
feel that “I exist and nothing else,” to the detriment of others. When this
feeling becomes extreme it can destroy lives of those around us. On the other
hand, we also have a spirit inside of us. We have the power to live noble
lives, filled with dignity and selflessness.
So we have an inevitable
clash. Matter by its very nature is selfish. Spirit is selfless. No wonder
that people have always speculated whether these two worlds can meet, let
In general we find two
approaches evolving in history: Asceticism and immersion. One states that
in order to experience spirit we must separate ourselves from the material
tentacles of life, and “climb the mountain” to meditate and become absorbed
in a higher reality. Basically, one must deny the material life. An extreme
version of this would be the ascetic life. To achieve the sacred the material
life must be compromised. The infinite may be reached, but only by denying
The other extreme is that
we cannot really reach heaven. We must live ethically, build healthy homes
and workplaces, and find spirit in limited ways within our limited lives.
Because we are essentially mortal creatures, with inherent selfishness or
even evil, we cannot expect anything more than the best an earthy creature
can achieve. A variation of this includes the ability of achieving salvation
but not through our own efforts but by embracing something beyond us. The
infinite is not integrated into our own personal lives.
Sinai opened the door
of a third option. Sinai created an interface that bridged heaven and earth,
giving us the power to integrate matter and spirit, utterly and completely,
without compromising one or the other. The finite can become one with the
infinite; matter one with spirit; the sacred one with the secular. Briefly,
because G-d is neither spirit nor matter, He gave us the power to completely
integrate the two; the power to build a material Temple, in which the Divine
This third option, however,
does not come easily. As limiting as the first two options may be, they seem
simpler, while the Sinai option requires a continual straddling of the thin
line between matter and spirit.
That is why Sinai came
after much hard work, and why it would take thousands of years to begin integrating
Sinai’s power into global affairs.
So where do we stand today?
The first revolution of
Sinai, the message of freedom, has in the last 300 years finally infiltrated
the nations of the world.
But the second revolution,
integration of spirit and matter, has yet to take hold – that is on a personal
level. In technology, science, medicine and many other fields the last century
is witness to unprecedented breakthroughs in the bridge between matter and
energy, form and function – between the invisible and the tangible, the invisible
forces of quantum particles and the macroscopic universe, between DNA and
the body. However, on the personal front – in our psychological lives, our
relationships, business and human interactions – we have yet to fund peace
between our souls and our bodies, between our transcendental needs and our
need to survive.
This struggle between
heaven and earth has many manifestations, including the battle that we so
often have witnessed between religion and secularism. If you are a firm believer
how do you deal with the secular world? According to the two-abovementioned
options you either have to wage a holy war against the secular, or your basically
embrace the secular with limited sanctity.
Therein lies the essential
root of the religious wars waged throughout history. Recognizing secular heresy
as an enemy, the Christians and later the Muslims, engaged in aggressive battles
with the forces they perceive as threatening.
This is the calling of
our times: To embrace the Sinai mandate in its entirety. In addition to Sinai’s
message of freedom, we are called on today to integrate into our lives the
Sinai system and blueprint for life, namely the universal laws of civilization
as they rang out from Sinai.
It’s one thing to be free.
It’s quite another to use the gift of freedom to live by the Divine standards
expected of us. Only then are we truly free – and only then does our freedom
realize its potential.
So yes, freedom is the
bedrock of our lives. But, as the “order” argument does us the service of
pointing out, freedom must be immediately coupled with a practical system
of law and order that can be implemented to build the institutions of a democratic
state. This system begins with education – educating people not only that
they are free and have rights, dignity and indispensable value because they
bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth, but that they also have responsibilities
to live up to their calling.
Freedom is thus the bedrock
of civilization, and personal responsibility, ethical behavior and living
virtuously is its structure. One without the other cannot survive. The First
Commandment dictates the foundation; the other nine define the structure of
Our challenge is to translate
the Sinai principles into a practical plan that tackles chaos, plague and
poverty, and allows for each nation to define the universal laws each according
to their own traditions and cultures.
The stage is set. The
next move is ours. All that is needed is an unwavering commitment to the Sinai
laws of civilization, and a demand– of ourselves and of the entire world –
to live up to our calling.
It took over 3000 years
for Sinai’s clarion of freedom to penetrate the world’s nations. Let’s make
sure that we embrace Sinai’s blueprint for life in far lesser time.