Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 7 February 2015 / 18 Shevat 5775

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The first of the ‘Ten Commandments’ is, “I am Hashem your G-d, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Shmot 20:2). For centuries, the most renowned commentators on the Torah have struggled with two obvious questions raised by this verse. First, is this a mere statement about G-d or is this a commandment to believe in G-d as the omniscient, omnipotent Creator and sustainer of all existence? If so, why is it expressed as a statement? Secondly, why is G-d describing Himself as the ‘One who took us out of Egypt’? Why not ‘the One who created the entire universe’, a much more powerful statement?

Abarbanel explains that the statement “I am Hashem your G-d” is not counted as one of the 613 mitzvot. These are clear commandments to either do something or refrain from doing something. The belief in the existence of G-d, however, was made known to us by the signs, wonders and revelations of the Divine Presence that happened before our eyes. This reality is the source from which the mitzvot were born, but it is not counted as one of the mitzvot. There is a Midrashic story which confirms this idea. The Mechilta (Shmot 20:3) asks the question: Since we have been told ‘I am Hashem your G-d’ why do we need the second commandment, ‘You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence’ (Shmot 20:3)? The Midrash answers with a parable: A new king makes his entry into the country. His subjects ask him what the decrees are that they are responsible to follow. He answers that he will make decrees only after they accept him as their king. Otherwise his decrees will be meaningless and ignored. Similarly, G-d said to the Jewish People: ‘I am Hashem your G-d’. I am the one that you accepted upon yourselves as your king, and therefore accepted My decrees. Thus, you cannot have any other gods besides Me. As such, the acceptance of G-d as king is a completely separate concept and not in the category of a mitzvah.

Abarbanel summarizes that this statement is not a commandment of belief or action. Rather it is the introduction to the commandments that follow. The purpose of the statement is to tell the people Who is speaking to them: not an angel or a prophet, but rather the First Cause of all existence, without any intermediaries. The statement itself contains three different expressions. ‘Hashem’, the four-letter ineffable name for G-d; secondly, ‘your G-d’; and thirdly, ‘Who took you out of Egypt’. These three expressions are to let us know that we should listen to the commandments and observe them because there are three aspects to G-d. The first — ‘Hashem’ — teaches us that His essence is the Creator of all existence. The four-letter name of G-d has the same root in Hebrew as the word for existence itself. He is the Creator and sustainer of all existence. It is as if He is saying to us, ‘Since I have given you the gift of your very existence, it is only fitting that you observe My commandments.’ The second aspect, connoted by ‘your G-d’ is an expression of G-d’s unique providential relationship with the Jewish People throughout history. Unlike other nations and peoples, we are not subject to astrological influences or the dynamics of history, geography and economics. Rather, G-d directs our fortunes. Again, it is only fitting that we observe His commandments. Finally, it was G-d who took us out of Egypt, a house of slavery from which escape was otherwise impossible. Again, G-d is telling us that because of the enormous good that He did for us by miraculously taking us out of Egypt, it is our obligation to keep all of the mitzvot, which are summarized and contained within the nine commandments that follow. The fact that G-d created the universe from absolute nothingness is a powerful but sometimes abstract and unfathomable concept. The historical experience of the exodus from Egypt is tangible and ultimately even more powerful.

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