A Holiday for the Rule of Law

Whereas Passover celebrates freedom, Shavuot honors the Ten Commandments.

 By Joe Lieberman

A doctor, an engineer, and a lawyer get into a debate about whose profession is the oldest. The doctor argues that it’s medicine: “There must have been a doctor in the Garden of Eden to help God transform Adam’s rib into Eve.”

“Oh no,” the engineer shoots back. “Before that there must have been an engineer who assisted God in changing primordial chaos into the order of the universe.” Then the lawyer chimes in: “You’re both wrong. There must have been a lawyer there first to create the chaos.”

Sure, some lawyers’ behavior merits such jokes. But many play a crucial role in maintaining the rule of law, which creates order. A good legal system makes the difference between a civilized society and a chaotic one, and it all began when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

For Jews, now is the perfect time of year—between Passover and the much less observed holiday of Shavuot—to contemplate the role of law in our lives.

In the Bible, the exodus from Egypt is not an insulated experience. It is part of a larger cycle that goes from slavery in Egypt, to freedom in the desert, to the Ten Commandments. Every year, religiously observant Jews count the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot, which begins this Saturday evening. The former holiday emphasizes liberty, the latter law. These values balance each other, which is why it’s unfortunate that so few people who observe Passover continue to Shavuot.

“Moses Presenting the Ten Commandments” by Raphael.
“Moses Presenting the Ten Commandments” by Raphael. PHOTO: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

Once freed from bondage, the children of Israel had a purpose and a destination. In Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh (Exodus 5:1) he says: “Thus saith the Lord, God of Israel, ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness.’ ” And, then, in his later confrontations with Pharaoh, Moses repeats at God’s behest, “Let My people go so that they may serve Me.”

How do the children of Israel serve God? By accepting and obeying a code of law, the Ten Commandments. Freedom is not enough. Liberty without law leads to chaos, immorality and violence. Law without liberty is what the Israelites endured under Pharaoh’s tyrannical rule.

As in Noah’s time, people have a birthright to freedom but they also need laws to protect their freedom, provide them with security and help them maintain their values. That is clearly God’s plan.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments were given to the children of Israel for everyone on Earth. Over time the Commandments became broadly accepted, particularly within Christianity and Islam. Early in its history, the Roman Catholic Church embraced the Ten Commandments as divine revelation. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God revealed the entire natural law in the Ten Commandments because no man or woman could know, understand or follow it unassisted.

John Calvin put the Hebrew Bible, including the Ten Commandments, at the center of the Protestant Reformation. That brought the legal model of Sinai into Anglo-Saxon law, which the English pilgrims carried with them to America, giving the U.S. a government of laws above its leaders.

In every era, people and nations struggle to find and maintain the balance between liberty and law. Today the Pharaoh’s repressive values are dominant in Tehran, Moscow and Pyongyang. The lawlessness of Noah’s era continues in Syria, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution require the U.S. to do everything possible to help restore justice and freedom in these societies.

Here in America, the rule of law remains strong, but it faces constant challenges. Will political dysfunction in Congress and at the White House permanently diminish our republic of laws? I’m confident it won’t. The system created by the Founding Fathers—regular elections, checks and balances, an independent judiciary—has held up.

American society faces other threats outside the limits of what law and government can control in a free country. Turn on cable news or pull up a political blog, and a coarsening culture displays itself. It isn’t helped by the inappropriate conduct and speech of public figures, which degrades this country and threatens to demoralize our children. It is a long time since Sinai, but the Ten Commandments remain an excellent code of personal values for each of us to try to live by—particularly in areas of private conduct where the government and law cannot go.

There is a lot to think about, discuss and act on during Shavuot, the Festival of the Ten Commandments. This year, whether you are Jewish or not, try considering how you can advance the ideals of the Ten Commandments in your personal and public life—in your community, in this country and throughout this beautiful planet.

Mr. Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is author of “With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai” (Maggid, 2018).

Appeared in the May 18, 2018, print edition.

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