This Shabbat we read one of the most central narratives in the Torah and in our journey as a people – the revelation at Mount Sinai, the reception of the Torah conveyed through Moses. From hereon in, everything changes. The people enter into a covenantal relationship with God.
At the heart of this narrative are the Ten Commandments (or the Ten Utterances [aseret ha-dibrot]), the core principles understood later by Jewish tradition to be the foundation of all the mitzvot, the fabric of Jewish life.
The very first commandment (“Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord, your God) doesn’t really sound like a commandment, but rather a statement. While the Ten Commandments are not openly framed as commandments; they are presented as ten utterances (dibrot), and you could argue that the first commandment is a proclamation.
We are told that in ancient near eastern context, from which the Hebrew Bible emerged, such a proclamation often served as a declaration of ultimate divine authority – a preface that introduces the content and legal requirements that will follow.
We also learn that later Jewish academics and philosophers understood the declaration “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” to be the first mitzvah stipulated at Sinai, and therefore the proclamation upon which the rest of the mitzvot are based.
Amongst those later Jewish academics and philosophers is the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), who wrote the ‘Mishneh Torah’ – a code of Jewish law that arranged the vast amount of Talmudic thought into one source of defined decisions. The Mishneh Torah includes a series of instructions concerning ‘appropriate belief’, outlining them as “Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah” (the laws of the foundations of the Torah).
The Rambam proclaims that the performance of mitzvot begins with the acknowledgement of the root of all commandments, which is to believe in God. The statement “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” is not articulated in the same manner as the rest of the dibrot. It implies a self-evident nature of divinity, that is to believe in God or a divine presence.
But how are we to understand such belief? And what does it mean to require it as the foundation for Jewish religious practice? Can a person live a faithful life of mitzvot without faith? And how is true faith to be defined and understood?
For the Rambam, the answer to this question is clear and absolute: the primary commandment, from which all else in the religious-halachic life flows, is to believe that God exists and is the first cause of all being. He states in the Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah; “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a first being or presence that brings forth everything else that exists”. He goes on to explain that this knowledge is a positive commandment, as it specifies; “Anochi Adonai Elohecha”.
In the Rambam’s view, God is the matzui rishon (the first existent), which has no body and no image, and its true reality lies beyond the limits of human perception. In short, God is transcendent.
We could extend that thought and read the powerful text of Exodus 19 & 20 – the narrative that embodies Parashat Yitro, as follows. The declaration “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” is a call to awareness, lifting the spiritual awareness within us to a new perspective of the commandments. Such a declaration stands at the beginning of the list of commandments; all of the subsequent mitzvot, the particulars of ritual and halachah – so they are all be guided by a mindfulness of “Anochi”, an awareness of divine presence.
The mitzvot flow from that awareness and they lead back to its realisation. The intention leads into the practice, and the practice in turn enables a fresh awareness of spiritual meaning. The circle of awareness and practice is comprehensive and never-ending. We read that at Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel, having recently become a people, and having even more recently been redeemed from slavery, pledged their commitment to the commandments by proclaiming to God; “na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will do and we will listen/understand).
When we approach the first commandment (at Mount Sinai) with the same level of acceptance and commitment, we discover a fresh approach to “Anochi Adonai Elohecha”, one which allows us to do and learn, and learn and do.