“I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Shmot 20:1)

“The conclusion one must derive from this prayer [Aleinu] is that heathendom still rules our civilized world.  If we are dissatisfied with the many imperfections of our social and moral order, if we encounter injustice, brutality, and cruel, ruthless stupidity, if falsehood, wickedness, violence, and evil forces are still rampant and unfettered, if man is suspicious, envious, petty, and obscene, it is only due to the fact that man is still a heathen, his life pagan, and his cult idolatrous. He has not yet understood and intellectually digested the doctrine of (Devarim 6:4) ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” (Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, cited in The Koren Ani Tefilla Shabbat Siddur).

The great commentators and codifiers (including Ramban, Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch and others) count the first verse of the Ten Utterances as one of the 613 mitzvoth. Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvot, lists it as the first positive commandment and at the beginning of his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-6), he elaborates on what is included in this precept: “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being. If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist. If one would imagine that none of the entities aside from Him exist, He alone would continue to exist, and the nullification of their [existence] would not nullify His existence, because all the [other] entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them nor any one of them. Therefore, the truth of His [being] does not resemble the truth of any of their [beings]. This is implied by the prophet’s statement [Jeremiah 10:10]: ‘And God, your Lord, is true’ – i.e., He alone is true and no other entity possesses truth that compares to His truth. This is what [is meant by] the Torah’s statement [Devarim 4:35]: ‘There is nothing else aside from Him’ – i.e., aside from Him, there is no true existence like His. This entity is the God of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. This power [continues] without interruption, because the sphere is constantly revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve. [That one is] He, blessed be He, who causes it to revolve without a hand or any [other] corporeal dimension. The knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as [implied by Shmot 20:2]: ‘I am God, your Lord…’ Anyone who presumes that there is another god transgresses a negative commandment, as [Shmot 20:3] states: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ and denies a fundamental principle [of faith], because this is the great principle [of faith] upon which all depends.”

Ramban (Shmot 20:2) addresses the question of why God introduces Himself to the Israelites as the One “who took you out of the Land of Egypt” rather than “who created heaven and earth.” He writes, “The meaning of ‘out of the house of bondage’ is that they stayed in Egypt in a house of bondage as captives of Pharaoh. He said this to them [in order to indicate] that they are obligated [to accept] this Great, Glorious and Fearful Name as their God, and to worship Him, because He redeemed them from Egyptian bondage. It is similar in meaning to the verse (Vayikrah 25:55), ‘They are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt.’” Ramban continues: “This commandment, in the words of our Rabbis, is called the obligation ‘to take upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ for these words, [i.e., the Lord your God], which I have mentioned, indicate a King addressing His people. Thus the Rabbis have said in the [Midrash] Mechilta: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’. Why is this said? Because it says, ‘I am the Lord your God’. This can be illustrated by a parable: A king invaded a country, and the people said to him, ‘Issue decrees to us.’ He, however, refused, saying: ‘No! When you have accepted my sovereignty, I will issue decrees to you, for if you do not accept my sovereignty, how will you carry out my decrees?’ Similarly, God said to Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods. I am He whose sovereignty you have accepted in Egypt.’ And when they said to Him: ‘Yes,’ [He continued]: ‘Now, just as you have accepted My sovereignty, so you must also accept My decrees.’ That is to say, ‘Since you have accepted upon yourselves and have admitted that I am the Eternal, and that I am your God from the [time that you were yet in the] land of Egypt, then accept all My commandments.’”

There are others, such as the Halachos Gedolos, cited by Ramban in his glosses to Sefer HaMitzvot, who do not count, “I am the Lord your God” as a mitzvah – and for good reason. According to them, the first verse of the Ten Utterances is a statement of fact that identifies the Giver of the Torah and serves as a basis for all the commandments that follow. Their view is supported by a compelling argument: The observance of any commandment depends on the prior belief that there is a Higher Authority whose commandments must be obeyed. How, then, can the belief in the Higher Authority itself be a commandment? That belief must precede all commandments! Rather, these authorities argue, as an introduction to all the commandments, Hashem declared, “I am the Lord, your God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt”, thus identifying Himself as the One who created and who controls the world, and by extension, as the One whose commandments we must obey. (See Artscroll edition of the Sefer HaChinuch, volume 1 page 216).

In light of this, it is somewhat difficult to understand the view of those who do count this verse as a positive commandment. Several commentators (cited in the aforementioned volume) suggest that this mitzvah, referred to as emunah, faith, is not merely a requirement to accept God’s existence. The Israelites had already come to believe in God earlier, at the Splitting of the Sea (Shmot 14:31), as the verses states, “And they believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe.” Why would Hashem command them to believe in Him if they already did? Rather, this mitzvah demands that one develop and perfect his faith by continuously acquiring a more profound appreciation of His ways, and by studying His Torah and His Creation until one arrives at a deep conviction and inner knowledge that Hashem created and rules over the world. Faith in Hashem has many different levels, subtleties and degrees. It requires constant work because one’s faith will be challenged and called into question. The journey to true emunah is a long and twisted road with many bumps and obstacles along the way. It is the most important mitzvah to focus on because without it, all other mitzvoth are irrelevant.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/3ylCFVkc8J0?si=c0IRDko_2jummedh

*Friday 9 & Shabbat 10 February – Rosh Chodesh Adar I

The Jewish leap year, which occurs seven times in a 19-year cycle, has 13 months instead of the regular year’s 12. This is so that the lunar-based Jewish year should remain aligned with the solar seasons (12 lunar months make up a total of 354 days, slightly more than 11 days short of the 365-day solar cycle). The added month is called “Adar I” and is inserted before the month of Adar (termed “Adar II” in leap years). The festival of Purim is celebrated in Adar II.  Nonetheless, the 14th and 15th of Adar I are referred to as Purim Katan and Shushan Purim Katan respectively, and the Tachnun prayer is not said on those days.  The Molad (appearance of the new moon) for Adar I is on Friday 9 February at 21h29 and 5 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds). 

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