Shavuot Feature (2): Marking the Top 10 Values Guiding Modern Jewish Life

In the 16th century, the mystics of Safed revitalized Shavuot observance with a brilliant form of adult education — an intellectual seder called “tikkun layl Shavuot.”

They put together a selection of the entire Jewish tradition that could be studied in one night.

In an age of sound bites, an all night test is too long.

A contemporary version of the mystics’ study session can be modeled on Shavuot, when God and Moses transmitted only a sampling — 10 out of the hundreds — of commandments in the Torah.

In this spirit here are the top 10 Jewish ideas and values to live by for study and acceptance on Shavuot.

The Triumph of Life: Judaism teaches that we are living in a universe that is moving form non-life to life. Contrary to the impression given by the universal presence of death, life is growing stronger and richer.

Life is the most precious form of existence. Our human task is to contribute to increase life. The great command is to “Choose Life!” in everything that we do. Ultimately, Judaism promises that if we live appropriately, life will triumph.

The Image of God: Life is expanding quantitatively and developing quantitatively. It is becoming more conscious, more powerful, more capable of love and relationship, more free.

In short, life is becoming more like the God who is its hidden Creator, Sustainer and Ground. The highest form of life yet developed, the human being, is so God-like that the Torah calls it “the image of God.”

Every human being, male and female, is created in the image of God. Therefore, every human being is born with the intrinsic dignities of infinite value, equality and uniqueness and should be treated accordingly.

Redemption, Tikkun Olam: Poverty, hunger, oppression, war and sickness are enemies of life. Therefore, we must work to overcome these conditions. Judaism promises that if we take on this task in partnership with God, the world will be perfected.

God: There is a hidden but universally present force which creates, sustains and unifies existence every second — God. God is totally on the side of life, goodness and justice.

This divine presence — inexpressible, indescribable except in human terms – - really cares for, indeed loves, every creature and human in a special way. When humans suffer, God suffers.

God is pledged to work with humans to overcome evil. Therefore no one is alone in pain or triumph. Humans who work to perfect the world will find themselves sustained by their divine partner.

Covenant: The perfection of the world will not be bestowed upon us by some divine gift. The goal can be realized by nothing less than a partnership, or covenant, between God and humanity. Both pledge to sustain and work for life and full human dignity in every way for as long as it takes.

Since the task cannot be completed in one lifetime, the covenant is also between the generations. Each promises to improve the world as best it can, and then pass on the mission to the next generation so that all the preceding efforts are not lost until the efforts of all shall be redeemed and the dream fulfilled.

Affirmation of this life: Although life is full of imperfection, one should not release from this life or, religiously, dismiss it as illusion. This life is intrinsically good. It is our human calling to live this life in holiness. This means to orient everything toward God.

Every act of life can be raised to the intensity of positive creativity as against destructiveness or mere routine. This is what halachah seeks to do. Halachah sets how every act of life can be made holy.

Family: Judaism affirms that perfection and higher consciousness will develop in the natural human context. Then the family is the natural vehicle of this development.

The family is the necessary medium for creating and nurturing life. It is the most powerful mechanism for transmission of the covenant to the next generation.

Therefore, the family and its related acts of communication, sexuality, eating, grooming, caring and celebrating are central in every aspect of Judaism’s way of life.

At this point, I hesitate. There are so many central Jewish values clamoring for recognition, but only three slots remain.

I would guess that love is one value that must be included. Shabbat is another, as is Torah.

But if I include all these, how can I leave out tzedakah — the obligation to help those who need help.

Or tzedek — the cosmic law of justice and the requirement to live up to it.

Or chosenness — the special role of the people of Israel to teach, to model, to work alongside humanity towards perfection and the unique agency of every people and faith called and loved by God.

On second thought, to complete the task is not my obligation alone.

Help me pick the definitive top 10 Jewish values which “a human being shall do them and thereby live.” Send your reaction to me at CLAL, 440 Park Avenue South, New York, New York, 10016.

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