This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi. Thisd’var Torah draws on comments and realizations from members of the study group.
The Ten Commandments, iconic through the ages, open with a statement of God’s redeeming power. The Israelites are poised at the base of Mount Sinai; a thick cloud has descended. God’s Voice bellows in the thunder:
“I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Exodus 20:2–3).
Some say that the first two commandments were all that the Israelites actually heard. The rest were transmitted to them through Moses. Rabbi Hezekiah b. Manoah, who compiled an anthology of earlier commentators, explains: “[God] uttered the first two individually, the people grew frightened, and Moses uttered the rest of the commandments individually.”1
What do these first two commandments command? Do they actually command anything at all? How does this proclamation of God’s redeeming Israel from bondage relate to the commandments that follow?
Temple Beth Or’s adult Torah study class tackled these dilemmas in looking at the Ten Commandments in the context of the Exodus. Rob opened the discussion by pointing out that “your God” speaks to the singular “you,” rather than the collective “y’all,” as we say in the South. The Ten Commandments are speaking to each person and are contingent on the individual’s relationship to God. Rabbi W. Gunther Plautsupports the premise that the singular “your” refers to each person: “Even though the whole people are addressed, the syntactical focus appears to be on each individual.”2 Up until now God has addressed the Israelites as a community; the Ten Commandments shift from emphasis on instructions for the community as a whole to each person’s responsibility.
What then does the first commandment command? Steve equated “I the Eternal am your God” to the Sh’ma—a proclamation of faith more so than a commandment. Evelyn extended this idea of acknowledgement of God, explaining the first commandment as setting up a binding contract: if you accept God who redeemed you from Egyptian bondage, then you will agree to serve God through living by these rules. Each time Moses went to Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites God bade Moses to demand: “Let my people go that they may worship Me” (Exodus 7:17). In Hebrew the word for worship comes from the same root as slave and servant. The Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh but servants to God. The difference between the two is that their work under Pharaoh was forced through bondage, but their service to God was a response to God’s saving power.
For the Israelites, connection to God comes from the tangible redemption they have just experienced. Thirteenth century Torah scholar Nachmanides elucidates: “This reminds them that now it is the great, glorious, and awesome Lord whom they are obligated to serve.”3 The Israelite’s redemption now realized, God sets forth their requirements for service. In explaining the necessity of these first commandments Nachmanides further sites Midrash M’chilta: “A parable: A king once entered a certain province. His courtiers said to him, ‘Issue decrees for us to obey.’ He replied, ‘No. When you accept my sovereignty over you, then I will issue decrees’...That is what God said to Israel. ‘I the Lord am your God’—I am the one whose sovereignty you accepted when you were in Egypt.’ They replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘Now that you have accepted My sovereignty, you must accept My decrees...accept all My commandments.”4 Just as redemption from slavery is the sign of God’s commitment to the Israelites; adherence to the commandments is the evidence of the Israelites acceptance of God.
The first two commandments were all the Israelites needed to hear. From their covenantal relationship with God the rest of the commandments naturally follow. Their acceptance of God’s sovereignty assumed a responsibility to act in ways respectful of God. An individual’s belief in God is directly manifest in the way one treats God; one’s parents, who are partners with God in creation; and one’s fellow human beings, who are also created by God. Belief in God originates in the heart in conjunction with an appreciation of the abundant blessings God bestows upon humanity. Belief is transformed into covenant when one’s actions become a canvas for actualizing that belief in the world.
The Ten Commandments are dependent upon individual relationships: God earning the Israelites’ trust through redemption; the Israelites accepting God’s sovereignty and the responsibility to live in reflection thereof; and the chain of tradition transmitting this covenant through the generations. As inheritors of that chain of tradition, each individual Jew comes to know God on his or her own terms. So, too, each one is responsible for upholding the covenant and assuring that it is manifest in his or her own life. For Jews, acknowledgement of God is more than an internal belief or proclamation of faith; it is a commitment to act in ways that demonstrate respect for God and the world God created.
1. Michael Carasik, ed., The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), p. 155
2. W. Gunther Plaut, Ed., The Torah A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 477
3. Carasik, p. 156
Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.