The First Commandment
By Nachum Mohl
When G-d gave Moses the Ten Commandments to give to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, the first commandment was "I am G-d, your Lord..." The other commandments in the Ten Commandments are easier to understand, such as honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, don't kill or steal. The other commandments can easily be understood that G-d has commanded us to do or refrain from doing something. This first commandment, "I am G-d, your Lord...is different, it is not a command to do something or refrain from doing something, rather it is a command to believe.
The difficulty with this is that if you believe then you can accept the all commandments to do or refrain from doing and to believe because you already belief in the existence of G-d. But if you do not believe in the existence of G-d, then not only the first commandment has no meaning, but also the rest of the commandments are just really something 'good' for people to do but not necessarily incumbent upon them. The bottom line is that if someone does not believe in the existence of G-d why on earth would he feel compelled to fulfill any commandment and especially the first, to believe in G-d?
There are several answers to this question. The first and most obvious answer is that the world was full of many gods at the time of the Jews departed Egypt and received the Torah. But none of the gods of the various nations had the power to actually take an entire nation out of the midst of a nation that was stronger than it, as was in the case of the Jewish G-d that extracted an entire nation from the midst of the greatest and strongest nation of its time, Egypt. Here was not a single individual that was rescued from a hostile group, nor a family that was released from bondage, but a large and numerous people who were enslaved and possessed not physical power to emancipate themselves.
Not only were they released from a mightier nation, but it was done in the most spectacular and miraculous manner. Signs and wonders that were never seen before and subsequently never seen again accompanied their release. There was no real change of heart of the rulers of Egypt, just the opposite, after Pharaoh gave permission for Moses and the Jews to leave Egypt, he rescinded his permission and came after them with his army and armed chariots. Yet G-d actively intervened in nature, splitting the sea, allowing his chosen people to walk between the parted sea. As they reached the other side, Pharaoh and his army entered between the parted sea and the sea collapsed upon them killing them all. This was witnessed by an entire nation!
Simply speaking we can understand that this is the meaning of the first commandment: "I am G-d your Lord who has taken you our from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. This could very well be understood that G-d is telling us that He is the ultimate power of the universe; He has redeemed us from our slavery in Egypt that we may be His people. It would be therefore that this mitzvah is a command to believe in the ultimate powers of G-d and that He is the savior and redeemer of His people, the Jews.
But still our original question, the question of belief in G-d still exists. What if some one does not have belief in G-d. What good is this commandment? One must first have belief in G-d and then he can accept this and all of the other commandments.
The answer is that a Jew is obligated to actively reflect on the history of his people. He must realize that Judaism is unlike any other religion. All other religions are totally based totally on unsubstantiated belief; Judaism is based on thinking and understanding which bring one to belief.
All other religions claim that their founder had divine revelation or was divine. Who saw such a thing? A few disciples perhaps of this single individual who claimed to be holy? Perhaps they claimed to have witnessed miracles performed by this person who claimed prophecy? Subsequent followers who had NO connection to this religious leader of this belief system were either converted by the sword (force) or by argumentative compulsion or persuasion, or by the goods received by the followers of such a religion (which is the basis of missionary activities who are out to prove that their religion is correct based on giving services and goods to the needy). None of the subsequent believers had any contact with anyone other than a few disciples. The adherents of these religion are based only on belief. There is no family connection to anyone who witnessed any miracles.
Jewish belief is not based on any of the above, rather it is based on the collective psyche of six hundred thousand people (really, six hundred thousand men; there were more: if we count the women and children it would be well over two million people) who collectively witnessed miracles and subsequently related it to their children each year (that is what Passover is all about). Our connection is deeper than those of other peoples; we are the actual descendents of the generation of the exodus from Egypt. We are the descendents of the people who conquered the land of Israel; we are the descendents of those who were exiled and who returned to their lands. We are the descendents of those who were forced into the long second exile and who were spread out over the various lands of the gentiles to endure their injustices and inhumanity.
Today we, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom G-d is returning to their ancient homeland are witnesses not just to history, but to modern miracles. We are more than just witnesses to the final in gathering of the Jews to their lands; we are the very children to whom G-d promised to their forefather to return to their ancestral lands.
This is not a mere manner of belief or not belief, it is a matter of seeing with our own eyes and knowing with our minds that the same G-d who took us out from the world's strongest country some three thousand years ago is now repeating His miracles, albeit in a more subdued manner. Only if we contemplate on the happenings of the past years will we be given the gift to see that the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is now actively fulfilling His promise to redeem His chosen people.
from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine