Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
This week’s parsha contains the Aseres HaDibros – the Decalogue. According to several early commentators the entire body of the 613 mitzvos are encompassed in these 10 commandments. When we read this parsha, both as parshas hashavua and on Shavuos, it is an opportunity to relive the awesome experience and responsibility that we received as we stood at the foot of Har Sinai.
The first commandment is, “Anochi Hashem – I am Hashem your G-d who took you from Egypt from the house of slavery.” This seems like a preamble, not a commandment. Most authorities, including the Rambam, say that this is in fact a commandment to believe in G-d. Let’s examine this verse in order to fully understand what is being demanded of us.
Firstly, we should take note that the 10 dibros are presented in singular form (אלקיך – your G-d, הוצאתיך – took you out, לא יהיה לך; לא תרצח – You shall not… all in the Hebrew singular form). This is different from other sections of the Torah that contain laws which are addressed in the plural form. This is because the basis of the giving of the Torah is personal; all observance is about having a personal relationship with Hashem. There actually seems to be a contradiction in the concept of mitzvos. There is a standard halachic formula of how Hashem is to be obeyed and his universal laws are kept by each and every Jew. However, there must be space for individuality and an expression of everyone’s uniqueness. The Torah expects us to strike a balance between compliance with a set of rules and having a dynamic experience and relationship with G-D. A Jew must work his whole life to be close to Hashem and have a personal relationship with him all the while as he or she is living within the parameters of the halacha.
Secondly, Hashem describes himself as the one “who took you from Egypt from the house of bondage.” This is the principal of divine intervention and involvement. G-D is not a reclusive divine being who is above all and is withdrawn from the petty doings on this earth. He is intimately aware and involved in our affairs. He does not tolerate injustice. He cares about every being and intervenes when he deems it necessary. Furthermore, he drew the Jewish people out of the house of bondage so that He could have this closeness with them. The term “house” of bondage connotes more than mere slavery. Rav S.R Hirch, z’l, explains that it refers to a situation where anyone born and living in that house is stripped of any sense of self, which is the essence of his humanity. In Egypt, we were reduced to being “things,” mere chattel to be deployed for the benefit of our masters. When Hashem drew us out of Egypt, he restored our humanity, made us responsible to him and changed our lives and our outlook. We were free to make choices and the Torah is there for us to help us make good choices.
This commandment is about having an active relationship with Him. It is about recognizing that He has a profound interest in us and in our success. He took us out of Egypt so that we can rise to our potential and be his servants. However, servitude to Hashem is completely different than the enslavement in Egypt. Serving Hashem entails choosing, knowing what he expects of us by learning his Torah and basing our life on those wishes.
As Jews, we pass the heritage of the Torah from generation to generation. The primary message is that we are a people who belong to Hashem because he made us human again, and He did so to give us His Torah. We transmit this through word and deed creating another golden link in the chain from Sinai.