"I am the Lord your God"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA

 

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With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzvah,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise

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This shiur is dedicated by Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern –
Young Israel of Scarsdale

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PARASHAT YITRO

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICTHENSTEIN SHLIT”A

 

“I am the Lord your God”

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. (Shemot 20:2)

 

The Rishonim are divided as to what this verse means. Ramban explains that represents a positive commandment to believe in God:

 

This statement is a positive commandment. God says, “I am the Lord” – Who is instructing and commanding them to know and to believe that there is a Lord, and that He is their God (Elokim) – meaning, existing, primal, from Whom everything emanated through His desire and ability.  Furthermore [“your God” indicates that] He is a God to them, Whom they are obligated to serve. And He says, “Who brought you out from the land of Egypt” – because His bringing them out of there indicates His reality and His will, for it was through His knowledge and His Providence that they came out.  And it also indicates that God created the world, for if the world were eternal [there would no possibility of miracles, since] nothing would change from its [eternal] nature. And it also indicates ability; and ability indicates His uniqueness, as it is written, “In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all of the land.”

 

The Rambam, too, counts this as a positive commandment, and lists it first in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot. In his explanation, the commandment assumes a more philosophical nature:

 

The first commandment is … to believe in the Divinity, meaning that we must believe that there is a First Cause that acts on all of existence. This is what God means by His words, “I am the Lord your God."

 

The Sefer ha-Chinukh likewise considers this a positive commandment, but here it is understood as including the obligation to believe in God’s eternity, in the exodus from Egypt, and in the giving of the Torah:

 

To believe that the world has one single God Who brought all of creation into existence, and that it is by virtue of His power and His will that everything came about, and that He always was, and will be forever, and that He brought us out of the land of Egypt and gave us the Torah, as it is written at the beginning of the giving of the Torah, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt”… (Commandment 25)

 

In contrast to these Rishonim, the Bahag does not consider this verse to be a commandment. The reason for this would seem to be its formulation as a statement rather than as an imperative (for example, the verse could have said, “Know that I am the Lord your God”). Why, according to the Bahag, does the Torah not command faith in the existence of God?  Furthermore, according to the Rishonim who believe that this is indeed a commandment, we must ask why it is stated as a fact rather than as a command.

 

We might explain that a commandment to believe in God is inherently problematic, for two reasons.  First, it is unreasonable for the Torah to command faith in God without explaining who God is and what is His nature; however, such an explanation is problematic in itself. Second, there is a logical problem with God Himself commanding belief in Him. For these two formal reasons, the requirement to believe in God cannot be formulated as a command. God is saying, as it were, “It is indeed obligatory that you believe in Me, but accept this as given.”

 

A second possible explanation is that even if it were possible for the Torah to command the belief in God, this would be undesirable. Bnei Yisrael had lived in Egypt for many years, and had absorbed the influences of their pagan environment. Egyptian culture was characterized not only by belief in a number of gods, but also by the idea that each of these gods acted upon physical reality. The gods were perceived as controlling all that happened in the world. The God of the Torah, in contrast, is different not only in that He is One, but also in that He is transcendental – i.e., His existence transcends material reality.

 

Hence, before Am Yisrael could start to learn all of the commandments, they first had to understand and internalize this message. Had the matter of faith in God been formulated as a regular commandment, they would have had no way to understand that this belief and faith were fundamentally different from anything that they had known previously.

 

However, if this is so, we must still explain how, by means of the statement, “I am the Lord your God,” God conveys to Bnei Yisrael the absolute contrast between Him and the gods of Egypt.

 

Rashi (20:19) expounds on the revelation at Sinai and grapples with an apparent contradiction in the verses:

 

“For from the heavens I have spoken” – however, here in our text it says, “And God descended upon Mount Sinai.”  [Is this not a contradiction?]  Therefore a third text reconciles them: “From the heavens He made His voice heard to you, to afflict you, and upon the land He showed you His great fire.” His glory is in the heavens, while His fire and might are upon the land.

 

Rashi’s explanation illustrates the paradoxical and seemingly impossible nature of the revelation at Sinai.  On the one hand, had God remained in the heavens and not descended onto the mountain to convey the commandments to them, they could not have understood or absorbed anything at all. On the other hand, it was important that Am Yisrael understand that God is transcendental, and altogether unlike the Egyptian gods to which they were accustomed. Therefore, a profound experience was needed in order to convey this complex message: “His fire and His might are upon the land."

 

The revelation at Sinai was a profound experience that affected the deepest level of the soul. Am Yisrael needed this experience and this revelation in order to be able to experience God as a Presence – and not only as the source of commandments. Every person has within him a triad of will-emotion-intelligence, and a powerful experience penetrates and impacts on all three levels. Since it is not sufficient that a person knows that he must subjugate himself to God, but must also desire (will) to do so, it was necessary that Am Yisrael experience the actual presence of God, His actual existence, not only His identity as the source of commandments. Hence – “I am the Lord your God.”

 

(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Yitro 5756 [1996].)