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December 20, 2019 / Congau

Positive Commandments

There are things we should do and things we should not do. It is often easier to list the latter. Thou shalt not kill, not steal, not lie; those are presumably commandments that are always valid (although one can make the argument that there are exceptions in certain circumstances). It’s more difficult to specify what we should do; the positive commandments are more circumstantial. We should help others, give to charity, be nice, do our best, but it’s hard to tell what exactly that means. Who should you help, when and where and how much? What could reasonably be expected of you? When have you done enough?

Strictly speaking, it’s never enough. You could spend all your waking hours doing charitable work, but even then you could work harder and more efficiently. You could exhaust yourself until you drop, but what good would that do? You could go to Africa and save one starving child or focus your efforts closer to home. What should you do? It’s impossible to say.

But sometimes your duty comes to you clearly and unambiguously and you just have to act. Suppose you walked past a child lying face down in a pool and all you had to do was to turn it around to save it from drowning. Wouldn’t it be absolutely terrible if you omitted to do this simple act for fear of getting your shoes wet or just because you didn’t feel like it? Nowhere does it say: Thou shalt rescue children from pools, but in this case the moral requirement is as clear as if it had been spelled out in those words by the highest authority.

Sometimes we are as responsible for a damage done when we omit to act as when we are the direct cause of it. We can’t hide behind oversimplified rules and laws that appear to acquit us. By living in this world, we make a difference and that makes us responsible.

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