If you ask most people in the Western world where the foundation of Judea-Christian ethics comes from, I suspect that even today in our secular world of 2015 most would readily agree it all started with the famous Biblical revelation experience at Mt. Sinai called, "The 10 Commandments." Indeed, for the past 3,000 years Christians and Jews alike have turned to that moment and those remarkable "10 Utterances" (the literal translation of the Hebrew "Aseret Hadibrot") as if they are clearly the most important ethical rules for society to follow.
In truth, we have talked about, written about and focused on those 10 commandments so much over the thousands of years since that transforming event, that most people have been lulled into believing that the most important part of Biblical ethics itself consists primarily in the keeping of those famous ten.
Perhaps that is why our wise ancestors who wrote the Bible immediately followed the giving of the 10 Commandments with an even more powerful ethically demanding portion called, Mishpatim in Hebrew. No sooner have we had our eyes popped open wide by the shaking of the mountain, the sparks and lightening and thunder that was so unearthly that the Torah claims that the children of Israel "Heard the lightening and saw the thunder," accompanying the giving of those famous commandments, then we are confronted with the opening lines of the very next portion which claim, "These are the rules which you shall set before them..."
If we already got the terrible 10, what rules are we getting now? In fact, just to prove to the reader that the original 10 were actually a kind of preamble to the rules that really matter, following the declaration that "These are the rules," God gives us FIFTY MORE in this next portion alone! Fifty more. From rules about slavery and freedom to laws outlining the crimes that justify capital punishment to rules governing property rights to the famous transformational idea called "lex talionis," "an eye for an eye," to laws of civil liability, property and moral behavior. It is a breathtaking array of social, civil, and criminal legislation laid out as the blueprint for this new spiritual society of the desert known from that moment on as the Jewish people.
It's almost as if The 10 Commandments were a set up -- first we get the 10 and think, "OK, 10 commandments -- seems like mostly pretty basic social common sense 0 -- I can do that." And then once we have opened our minds to the very idea of being commanded in the first place, "wham," we get the rest of the story which is 50 more powerful moral and ethical obligations. Of course by now it is collectively too late to back out -- we are already committed.
This is a Biblical portion whose profound, sophisticated, ethical expectations and social responsibility has continued to reverberate throughout history to this very day. It is worth taking your time to read every word of this portion: Exodus 21:1-30:16 when you have a chance. You can't help but be impressed by the wisdom of our ancestors, the insight into the human psyche that they reflected in these rules, and statutes and ordinances from so many thousands of years ago.
For example, one of the most powerful yet complex ethical challenges in the entire Torah is found in the deceptively simple phrase, "You shall not follow a multitude to do evil." (Exodus 23:2). After all, think of how many times in all our lives we simply followed the majority, because that's what "everyone" was doing, or saying, or wearing. The insidious power of peer pressure, to conform, to be accepted, to be liked, to be part of the group is one of the single most destructive forces undermining ethics and morality in the world.
Sometimes it's as simple as standing by and letting someone disparage another or an entire ethnic group because we aren't willing to risk the rejection that might follow any personal expressions of condemnation. Our loyalties and priorities in life are so often twisted by our emotional needs for friendship and love and acceptance, that we suppress our own best instincts in the misguided search for approval.
It takes the utmost in moral courage to stand up to the crowd -- any crowd. But this is exactly what this Torah portion demands of us. "Do not follow a multitude to do evil," it says, followed shortly by the reminder that because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we will always know the heart of the stranger. More often than any other single commandment, a full 36 times in the Torah, we are reminded that we were strangers in Egypt and commanded to "treat the stranger in our midst as the home born." We are to remember that ultimately all of us are strangers, that all of us are merely sojourners on this earth, and therefore all of us are ultimately responsible for one another.
All we need do is look around us any day of the week to realize that the wisdom, challenge, and power of this commandment is as relevant and difficult to follow today in 2015 as it was when it was first written by our ancestors over 3,000 years ago. And yes, perhaps truly more important than those original 10 Commandments after all.