Yitro: The Ten Commandments As A Guide To A Sustainable Society, By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

“What does it take to build a society that will long endure on the land?”

 The highlight of this week’s parasha, the Decalogue, begins with God’s self-identification as having brought Israel “out of the house of bondage” and launches directly into prohibitions of false gods (commandments 1-3). These two ideas – slavery and idolatry – are linked. Slavery, in all its manifestations, means taking human beings, ends in themselves, and making them means to one’s own gratification. Idolatry is the reverse: taking things that are legitimate means to further life, like money, power, achievement – and making them ends, worshiped and sought after as if they were god-like (“their idols are silver and gold”). The twin evils of entrenched oppression and the single-minded pursuit of profits, ignoring questions of justice and health, creates long-lasting impact – “upon the third and upon the fourth generations” – while the opposite too ripples out, a deep commitment to chesed reaches “to the thousandth generation.”

At the core of the Decalogue is another image of intergenerational responsibility. Commandments to honor parents, and prohibitions on murder and adultery (5-7) are about the sanctity of life and its creation, the importance of love, honesty and commitment. Honoring our progenitors rejects a throw-away culture in which even the elderly are disposable. And the reward? Lema’an ya’arichun yamecha – “that you may long endure on the land,” the very definition of sustainability.

Shabbat (#4) is the linchpin that links these sets of ideals, reminding ourselves of our creatureliness (we are not the Creator), and the imperative that all rest (including servants and animals) – means that none can be mere means to fulfill our needs. The day devoted to spiritual pursuits, family and communal well-being, is rooted also in a “cease-fire” between humans and nature. The shmita year then amplifies these values from one day a week to one year in seven, ensuring they become a corner-stone of society.

Commandments 8 and 9 – against theft and perjury – enforce public standards of honesty and integrity. But theft is not just about private property: we are also forbidden to “rob the public” (as in polluting air or water, robbing people of these resources, or privatizing public lands): “Robbing the public is a graver offense than robbing an individual, for one who robs an individual can appease that person and return what he stole, but one who robs the public cannot appease the public and return to all of them what was stolen from them” (Tosefta Bava Kamma 10:8).

The Author saved the best for last: “#10 – Do not covet.” This is the root of it all. Rein in greed, insatiable material wants, the crazy-making comparisons with friends, neighbors, celebrities, influencers. Those are the engines of unsustainable growth and unhealthy consumerism. And this closes the circle, from ending outer slavery to achieving inner freedom. Not coveting “your neighbor’s house” means not turning it into a “house of bondage.”

These values – opposing oppression and idolatry (false gods of money and status), striving for intergenerational equity, sanctifying life, love, honesty, integrity, the significance of Shabbat, and the centrality of inner spiritual discipline, and building a society that supports those values – that is indeed what will guarantee that we may long endure on the land.

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Dr. Jeremy Benstein is a co-founder and senior staffer of the The Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, and is the editor of the English language website of 929.org. He is the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006), and more recently, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World (Behrman House, 2019). 

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