February 15, 2001
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
The words we find in this week's parasha have undoubtedly influenced more individuals in the Western world than any other in the entire Torah. They are called in Hebrew aseret hadibrot (the ten utterances), but most people know them simply as the Ten Commandments.
They have provided a beacon of moral certainty in eras of social confusion and doubt and have illuminated the dark corners of the human soul when the divine sparks of prophetic vision have been dimmed by violence, injustice and oppression.
At times I read these words with an almost embarrassing sense of communal pride at being heir to the civilization that gave these "commandments" to the world.
At other times I am reminded that all people share the same hopes and dreams and divine spark. This was brought powerfully home to me recently when I was privileged to be part of "Talk to America," a live worldwide conversation on Voice of America.
The subject was parenting, ethics and character, and I was invited as the featured guest because of my book "Children of Character -- Leading Your Children to Ethical Choices in Everyday Life" (Canter & Associates). What made it so unforgettable was that the other participants in this conversation were calling from South Africa, Liberia, India, Ghana, Iran, Guyana, China, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. The most incredible aspect of this international conversation was how powerfully our human oneness was underscored.
Shelly in South Africa said, "I agree completely that teaching values has to be by example, not precept. The most important thing parents can do for their children is to transmit a sense of who they are."
Maxwell in Liberia asked, "With all that's going on the world today, how can a parent raise a kid with good character?" And Katon in India lamented, "Times are changing, and most of the time children are now outside the home or in front of television sets, and the influence of parents has declined to a considerable extent. Gone are the days when we had dinner-table discussions and parents took pride in developing the character of their children. How relevant today really is the influence of parents compared to what it was a hundred years ago?"
Ahnd in Madras added, "I think that kids used to hear stories at the knees of parents and grandparents. They always ended with good triumphing over evil. They were designed to encourage kindness, good, charity, love, understanding, tolerance, honesty, simplicity, sharing and truth, and discourage the opposite values. I think we are a lot poorer today. This isn't taking place, and kids are valueless comparatively. They are more selfish, and TV, soap operas and movies are no longer teaching morals."
Quami in Ghana said, "As a parent I try so hard to bring up my child "the right way," but we have TV influencing the values which may not be the right values; we also have peers attempting strongly to undo what parents have done. How do children walk that fine line?"
Jenny in China commented, "It is very important for parents to influence their kids, but I wonder about your reaction to parents who have given their kids too much influence, while the kids want their own character, so it's kind of tough for the kids."
Hassein in Iran asked, "Can you predict that one day the world will have the same set of values accepted by all people around the globe, so that there will be no conflict around the world. Is it possible? Do you think that such a day will come, and if yes, how can this happen?"
While I listened to these voices from around the world, I realized that I have had this same conversation with parents in Chicago, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and here in Los Angeles.
After all, that is the real meaning of why this week's "Ten Commandments" were given in the desert and not Jerusalem -- to teach us that the most important spiritual truths of human life are the same for everyone, regardless of race or religion, culture or language. Perhaps when we finally accept that truth of that lesson, the messianic vision articulated by Hassein of Iran will finally come true.