I recently bought a new gas stove and a matching over-the-stove microwave for my home. The appliance company delivered the stove and installed it quickly. They were going to charge me a fee to remove the old microwave and install the new. I had seen it done a couple of times and thought I could easily do it myself. I removed the front panel of the old unit to locate the mounting bolts. I could see them but did not know how to access them. I then removed the bottom of the unit and still no luck. Starting to get frustrated, I remembered those famous words: “When all else fails, read the instructions.” Suddenly my mission was much clearer.

Earlier this month, Jewish people all over the world celebrated the harvest festival called Shavuot. This holiday is also recognized as the day the Ten Commandments were delivered by Moses at Mt. Sinai in the year 1313 B.C.E. The Ten Commandments have long held a special place not only in Judaism, but also within the broader configuration of values we call the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Most of the world’s major religions recognize and honor the values represented in the Ten Commandments. We believe that these commandments, along with the rest of the Torah which soon followed, serve as the instructions or blueprint for how we should lead our lives. Societies throughout the ages have tried in countless ways to live outside of these guidelines. Perhaps it is time to take another look and “read the instructions.”

I like to divide the Ten Commandments into three sets of three related principles, with the final commandment standing alone. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, says the following: “The first three commands, through which the people declare their obedience and loyalty to God above all else, establish the single most important principle of a free society, namely the moral limits of power. Without this, the danger even in democracy is the tyranny of the majority, against which the best defense is the sovereignty of God.”

This notion of the tyranny of the majority is also evident once again in the second three commandments, which reference and honor the creation of life. Once again, they establish limits to the idea of autonomy, namely that we are not free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others.

The third set of three commandments address principles that are essential to operating a properly functioning society. The basic concepts about the institutions of marriage, justice and commerce are guided by them. The final commandment prohibits the envy of that which belongs to others, whether it be your neighbor’s spouse, house, possessions or anything else. Envy lies at the heart of much of the violence, crime and moral decay that has existed since the beginning of our time on Earth.

The instruction manual known as the Ten Commandments guards against the “tyranny of the majority,” limits powers of autonomy, lays down guiding principles for society and teaches us to recognize and be content with what we already have. If all of us, those elected to office, business owners, teachers, friends and neighbors could live by these instructions, how much better off our world would be.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has been on my mind as I write this article. President Trump has decided that the United States will withdraw from this agreement and will not honor the commitments made by the Obama administration to limit any further negative effects of climate change on the world’s environment. The president was elected by a clear majority of votes in our Electoral College. As president, he seems to have the legal right to make that decision.

At the same time, his representation of the majority has been in question since he was elected. Clearly the vast majority of Americans, indeed the citizens of the world, support the Paris Treaty. Is our president using the tyranny of the majority and the support that he enjoys in the House and Senate against the will of the people? Does he understand that we are not free to continue to act as we wish unilaterally?

The Establishment Clause contained in the First Amendment, known as the Separation of Church and State clause, does not allow our government to be run according to any particular religious ideology. We may be a country built on Judeo-Christian values, but we are a nation of laws established under the guidelines of the Constitution. Whatever our government does on our behalf will always be criticized by some and applauded by others. Our system of checks and balances should ensure the legality of government’s decisions, but cannot ensure that those decisions are always reached with the good of the majority in mind. How about those pesky Ten Commandments? They have served as a set of instructions for mankind for more than 3,300 years. With all of the complex and far-reaching decisions that we all need to make, wouldn’t they still be the best guide for us today? We are now seeing some of the results that occur when we stray far away from the values that have guided us for so long. It is our duty as citizens of the world to continue to do whatever we can to repair that which needs repair, whether it be work on climate change, taking care of those less fortunate and underserved, or the erosion of common decency. Ours is a job that never ends and seems impossible at times. It is difficult even to know where to start. Maybe those famous words are true after all … when all else fails, read the directions.

Rabbi Gary Berenson is the rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim and also serves as the executive director of The Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. He can be reached at:

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