It was a strange and historic moment one morning in 1995 when a long truck pulled into Yellowstone National Park carrying eight Canadian wolves. This shipment of wolves had been for years the focal point of explosive political battles and the stuff of dreams for wildlife biologists. After many false starts and almost-dashed hopes, the day had finally arrived. Nobody knew what exactly would happen.
Wolves had been hunted to eradication in Yellowstone by 1930 and for almost seventy years there were no wolves in the park. During that time, the health of the ecosystem and many species had declined. Elk, free from their predators, had munched the trees and bushes around waterways down to stubs; the beavers no longer had good materials to make their dams and so were failing; the numbers of fish and animals that live in the water had dropped dramatically; birds of all kinds were struggling. The banks of the rivers had eroded and the rivers had become shallower and slower. Everything was slowing and declining. It was as if the life force in the entire region was fading.
The pack of wolves that arrived that morning thrived and grew and eventually reached a robust population. As the wolves came back, one by one plants along the riversides, the beavers, and all the other animals, fish, and birds began to return as well. Even the elk fared well—they just hid more in the deeper forests and didn’t linger snacking by water. The rivers themselves changed shape, becoming deeper and faster flowing, with more estuaries that support wildlife and more sharply defined banks because of better soil that was eroding less. This small group of wolves, simply by being themselves and doing what wolves do, brought balance back to the ecosystem and life back to the earth. The biologists had tipped the first domino and nature took care of the rest.
Does what I do matter?
Some of us suspect that our religious practices have little effect in the world. We fear that even if we did do our very best to keep the spirit of the Ten Commandments—to center God as the power of liberation in all our actions; even if we were able to transcend our own coveting, and trade fairly for the goods we consume, become radical truth-tellers, keep our sexual commitments, and keep a Sabbath, and even if we did find it all personally “worth it” because of greater joy, freedom, dignity, and purpose in our lives, it wouldn’t really do anything to change the wider world. Systemic injustice would still be in place, world hunger would persist, the earth’s ecosystems would still be teetering on the edge of their ability to sustain life. We would have gone to great lengths, sacrificed much, and accomplished nothing in the big picture.
Here is where the biblical tradition disagrees. If there is any thread that runs throughout the Torah text and the midrash and commentaries it is that individual humans matter; we matter and our actions matter in ways much broader and deeper than we could ever know. It matters what we say, it matters what we do, it matters what we eat, what we buy, and with whom we have sex. Every decision we make ripples out through a world that is dense with meaning. We are all inextricably connected, and everything we do affects others, who then affect others. We shape the very fabric of reality, for better and for worse.
The second commandment—the one prohibiting the making of sculpted images—includes the following warning: “for I, YHVH, your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, to the third generation and to the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Many of us bristle at the idea of God as a “being” who judges and punishes, particularly one who would punish children for things their parents and grandparents did. But when we look at the world, that is indeed how things work. Remember that God here is YHVH–reality. It is a tragic reality that children suffer because of their parents’ actions. There is a transfer of pain across the generations. Violence and evil don’t stay put in history or geography. They breed and multiply.
But what saves the day here, literally the saving good news of faith, is that goodness and love also multiply. Our religious traditions teach us that yes, hate proliferates, but that love proliferates exponentially more. The full biblical text that concludes the second commandment reads, “for I, YHVH, your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, to the third generation and to the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing loving-kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and those who keep my commandments.”
Pain travels to the third or fourth generation, but loving-kindness (in Hebrew, “chesed”) travels to the thousandth. This too rings true in our world. When we act out of love, justice, truthfulness, and respect, that goodness reverberates outward into the galaxy, touching everyone and everything. And the corollary to this is that we are the beneficiaries of goodness from long, long ago. Many of us know people who are loving people, good partners or good parents who themselves came from an abusive family. And we ask, “How did she turn out to be such a good partner?” “How did he turn out to be such a good father?” “Where did she get such self-confidence?” “Where did he get such strength?” The thousandth generation principle teaches that it could have been a powerful love a hundred years ago that formed a substrate of compassion, kindness, strength, and pride that transmitted silently through the generations to that person. Goodness proliferates. Chesed can never be contained.
When I feel daunted by the difficulty of keeping the commandments, when I am skeptical that anything I could do could get the delicate systems of our world into health and balance, I think of this sacred teaching and of the story of the wolves in Yellowstone. When we perform even one small act of courageous love, it can trigger a cascade of goodness that pours into our lives and out to our families, to our communities, and to the ecosystems of the world itself—not just to the third or fourth, but to the thousandth generation.
In Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments are known simply as ten devarim—words, things, or concepts for living a holy and meaningful life. To the extent that we have the capacity and the resources, they function as commandments, challenging us to change and grow. But to the extent that we are hurting or lost, to the extent that we need the nurture of YHVH, the perspective swivels. We can hear in the voice from Mt. Sinai a loving consciousness gently stirring us, inviting us, calling us with chesed toward our own liberation. The commandments, like a sleeve inverting itself, transform into blessings:
May you be blessed with power directly from the tap—the Source of life and liberation; may it, and nothing else, guide you.
May you be blessed with authenticity; may you be able to discern the real from the simulation.
May you be blessed with innocence; may you always speak the goodness of life and break free from cynicism.
May you be blessed with peace; may you luxuriate in sacred time and space every week.
May you be blessed with humility; may you honor your Source in all its forms.
May you be blessed with compassion; may you be a life-sustaining force for all the creatures of the earth.
May you be blessed with love; may you repair what is broken and cherish what is imperfect.
May you be blessed with abundance; may you never need to take what is not yours.
May you be blessed with honesty; may you be a conduit for the voices of truth in your world.
May you be blessed with enough; may you always be filled with the freedom, joy, and dignity of YHVH.
Excerpted with permission from No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments by Ana Levy-Lyons (Center Street/Hachette, 2018).