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Rabbi Stephen Kahn

On this Shabbat in Jewish communities throughout the world we will read the Ten Commandments, which can be found in Parshat Yitro. During the recitation of the Ten Commandments each year, individuals within congregations will stand up. This act reminds us all that we each “stood” along with our ancestors at Mount Sinai. 

What is a commandment? In Hebrew, the word mitzvah is often mistranslated as a good deed. When we were children we were told that cleaning our rooms, brushing our teeth and being polite were all mitzvot. As adults, we think the word mitzvah is synonymous with doing good things and treating people with kindness and compassion. While these are all truths symbolically, the literal translation of the Hebrew word, mitzvah, is commandment. In Judaism we believe that the Mitzaveh or Commander, is God, and that mitzvot, commandments, are directives from our Creator. 

While the commandments are explicit instructive from God to the People of Israel who stood at Sinai, only the First Commandment poses a problem for us. Exodus, Chapter 20:1, beings as follows: “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Upon first glance we believe this to be the quintessential commandment; faith and belief in God are at the core of Jewish living. Yet, if we read it closely, there is no explicit mitzvah.  

The medieval philosopher, Rabbi Hasdai Creacas, wrote in his primary teaching, “Or Hashem,” “The Light of God,” a statement clarifying this problem. He wrote, “He who includes among the list of positive precepts belief in the existence of God falls into a common error. The very character of the term mitzvah indicates by definition, that it can only apply to matters governed by free will and choice. But, faith in the existence of God is one of those things which are not governed by free will and choice. Consequently the term mitzvah cannot apply to it (the First Commandment).”

As a rationalist, Rabbi Creacas teaches us that we cannot view the First Commandment as a mitzvah, but rather as an irrefutable truth that is not subject to free will or choice. As opposed to the other commandments, the First Commandment is not open to interpretation. Even if we might argue over the nature of God, as our teachers have for thousands of years, we cannot question God’s existence. 

A few hundred years later, the Code of Jewish Law (Yesodei haTorah 1:6) reiterates Creacas’ argument that the First Commandment is not a commandment. The rabbis taught that it is a statement made by God in which God’s essence is revealed. Without the belief in God, the remaining commandments are meaningless. We might have free will when it comes to observing Shabbat, honoring our parents or making false idols out of material things. We cannot, however, choose belief in God, for God exists whether we believe in God or not. 

For the People of Israel, God’s existence is a fundamental principle of our tradition, day-to-day encounters and is at the core of our belief system. The three pillars of Judaism: God, Torah and Israel, while mutually inclusive, are all dependent on the idea that God is at the center of it all. Indeed the centrality of God in Judaism has been the common denominator for all valid interpretations, understandings and nuances of Jewish living. Once the idea of God’s existence is removed from the equation, however, the rest falls apart; our traditions become empty and our rituals benign. 

As we stand this Shabbat during the reading of the Ten Commandments then, let us imagine we were standing together at Sinai as one People of Israel, united by our unique faith and fervent commitment to God’s eternal presence in our lives. JN

 

Rabbi Stephen Kahn is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.

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