Yisro: Sinai 2005


Our Calling Today

Many pundits are lauding President Bush’s inaugural address, in which he declared that the “calling of our time” is the advancement of freedom around the world.

But many are also questioning the practical application of this principle, and whether this should be our focus today. Europeans in particular are enraged at America today and it’s cavalier attitude (but that’s another story).

Fareed Zakaria asks in his Newsweek column this week: Is liberty actually the “calling of our time?”

The question is posed as a challenge to President Bush’s words in his inaugural address, that the “best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world… Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Mr. Zakaria rightfully questions whether, outside of the Middle East, the problem of tyranny is indeed the “calling of our time”? Is it the dominating issue for the world at large today? “Is ending Burmese tyranny the urgent requirement of America’s security? Is battling Cuba’s decrepit regime the calling of our time?”

He argues that today, we live in a world that is mostly free.

“For much of the world, the problem is not the will for democracy but the capacity to build and sustain a stable, effective and decent government… The great challenge today is civil strife, extreme poverty and disease, which overwhelms not only democracy but order itself. It is not that such societies are unconcerned about freedom. Everyone, everywhere, would choose to control his own destiny. But this does not mean as much when the basic order that precedes civilized life is threatened, and disease and death are the most pressing daily concern. Much of Africa is reasonably free, holds elections and is far more open than ever before. The great challenge in, say, Senegal and Namibia is not freedom but an effective state. 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.”

So, while the call for global freedom is a noble, visionary goal, Mr. Zakaria makes the case that America cannot be satisfied with the virtues of its grand goals, but it must also provide a practical plan how to implement freedom in a workable system of government.

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, Mr. Zakaria’s argument seems to be equally legitimate: How does freedom help people if they are plagued by poverty, disease and corruption? 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 (which President Bush actually credited in his speech). 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 (Miztrayim) 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. As Mr. Bush also made reference to in his talk: “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights, and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth.”

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’ lives.

Notwithstanding all history’s “growing pains,” at Sinai the universe received the mandate of freedom and the blueprint of civilization. 3317 years ago Sinai set in motion a series of events that would change the world forever, and continues to impact our lives today.

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 and freedoms.

In the last three centuries freedom has continued to spread, to the point as Mr. Zakaria cites in his article, 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.

Philosophers, thinkers, 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 alone merge.

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 finite.

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 G-d rests.

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 above-mentioned 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.

Its 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 Mr. Zakaria 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 lives.

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 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.


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