Parashat Yitro

Exodus 18:1–20:23

February 6, 2010 / 22 Shevat 5770

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, assistant professor in the Department of Jewish Thought, JTS.

This Shabbat we read the most pivotal narrative in all of scripture: the revelation of God to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, the reception of the Torah as the divine word transmitted through Moses. From this moment forth, everything changes. The people enter into a covenantal relationship with God; they accept the life of mitzvot as their responsibility and the obligation of their descendents. At the heart of this narrative is the transmission of the Ten Commandments (or the Ten Statements [aseret ha-dibbrot]), the core principles understood by later Jewish tradition to be the root and foundation of all the mitzvot, the fabric of Jewish religious life.

Interpreters of this text in Exodus 20 have long been intrigued by the fact that, unlike the other prescriptions and prohibitions, the first commandment (anokhi YHVH Elohekha ["I am the LORD your God"]) doesn't seem like a commandment at all. Of course the ten are not explicitly framed as commandments; they are presented as ten utterances or proclamations (dibbrot). In the ancient Near Eastern context from which the Hebrew Bible emerged, such a proclamation often served as a statement of ultimate divine authority—a preamble that introduces the content and legal stipulations to follow.

And yet later Jewish thinkers did understand the statement "anokhi YHVH Elohekha" to be the first mitzvah stipulated at Sinai, and the proclamation upon which the rest of the mitzvot are predicated. A striking and influential expression of this view is found in Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, the genre-defining masterwork of medieval halakhah (completed in the year 1177), a code of Jewish law that systematized the vast corpus of talmudic thought into a rubric of clear-cut decisions. The Rambam (Maimonides) opens this voluminous work with a long excursus entitled "Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah" ("The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah"), in which the great Sage presents his Aristotle-inspired views on the existence of God and the nature of belief. Judaism, in contrast to the Catholic catechism, is often understood to be a religion that legislates behaviors (in ritual and ethics) but not beliefs. According to this view, despite the existence of certain core assumptions about right belief (as in the indispensable affirmation of monotheism), Judaism allows for a great deal of diversity in its theological nuance, and it certainly doesn't frame the proper particularities of belief within a structure as normative as halakhah.

Or does it? In fact, this is precisely what Moses Maimonides seeks to do in his Mishneh Torah. By opening his law code with a series of instructions concerning right belief—even framing these as the Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah (the laws of the foundations of the Torah)—the Rambam aims to accomplish nothing less than a legislation of thought and creed, a project that presents theological principles as the most critical components of an authentic religious practice. The performance of the mitzvot begins with a fulfillment of the root of all commandments: to believe in God. The statement "anokhi YHVH Elohekha," which is not spoken with the prescriptive direction of the subsequent dibbrot, is understood to imply the axiomatic nature of Divinity, the indisputable imperative to believe in God.

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 interpreted?

For Maimonides, the answer to this question is clear and absolute: the primary commandment, from which all else in the religious-halakhic life flows, is to believe that God exists and is the first cause of all being. As he states in the opening lines of this classic chapter (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, 1:1, 1:6): "The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a first existent that brings forth everything else that exists . . . This knowledge is a positive commandment, as it is said, anokhi YHVH Elohekha." In the Rambam's Aristotelian worldview, God is the matzui rishon (the first existent): the force that has no previous cause and that is the ultimate cause of all that comes to be. For Maimonides, this "unmoved mover" has no body and no image, and its true reality lies beyond the limits of human knowledge. In short, God is utterly transcendent.

Let me turn now to a very different conception of emunah (faith) in Jewish thought, albeit one that situates itself in the same rhetoric of imperative and commandment that is found in the Rambam's Mishneh Torah. For this articulation we jump ahead in time by more than eight hundred years to the late twentieth-century hasidic mystic, Rabbi Shalom Noah Barazofsky, known as the Slonimer rebbe—author of the classic work Sefer Netivot Shalom. The Netivot Shalom begins his seven volumes of mystical reflection and commentary with extended essays on the centrality of emunah, all framed as the "Yesodei ha-Torah"—an explicit allusion to the work and rhetoric of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. For the Slonimer, as for the Rambam, emunah is the essential foundation of the religious life—a requirement that underlies and animates the totality of the mitzvot. But the hasidic master means something profoundly different by the term emunah. In the thought of the Netivot Shalom, emunah is a kind of orienting spiritual consciousness—a state of awareness in which the "believer" comes to see that God is not separate from the world and its happenings; God is not transcendent as the Rambam so vigorously insists.

Instead, the Slonimer argues, God is the All of Being-the deep interconnected oneness of everything that exists. God is the great force of life that pulses beneath the surface of perception.

There is nothing else.

All is God.

As the Slonimer formulates it (Sefer Netivot Shalom al ha-Torah, 2:161): "There is nothing that exists other than His reality; for He, may He be blessed, animates and vitalizes them all. He is the reality of all the things that exist, and there is no reality in the world other than His reality. This is the truth of faith (ve-zehu amitut ha-emunah)."

Achieving emunah is a coming-to-awareness of deeper spiritual truths—a consciousness in which the veils of illusion have been lifted, where the obstructions to a pure mystical light have been removed. In this moment, the shells of our hearts break open, and the warm glow of divine presence rushes in. We are absorbed into the complete light and breath of Divinity. Recasting the framework of Maimonides, the Netivot Shalom asserts that this state of perception, this emunah, is the root that nourishes and enables the whole of the religious life; it is the necessary foundation for living a true life of mitzvot.

Perhaps this is how we may read the powerful text of Exodus 19 and 20—the narrative that structures Parashat Yitro. The statement "anokhi YHVH Elohekha" is a call to awareness, the voice that seeks to awaken consciousness, to lift the religious person to a new perspective on the practice of the mitzvot. It is for this reason that such a declaration stands at the beginning of the list of commandments; all of the subsequent mitzvot, the intricacies of ritual and halakhah—they must all be guided by a mindfulness of anokhi, a consciousness of divine presence.

For the mitzvot both flow from that awareness and lead back to its realization. The intention leads into the practice, and then the practice in turn enables a fresh perception of spiritual meaning. The circle of awareness and practice is complete and never-ending.

Immediately following the enunciation of the Ten Commandments, the text states: ve-khol ha-am ro'im et ha-kolot—literally rendered as, "all the people saw the sounds (or the thunder)." Two elements stand out to us, as they have for generations of interpreters. First, we may note the paradox of sensation evoked in this line—for how does one see a sound? And second, the text articulates the seeing of the people in the present tense (ro'im). However these two phenomena may be explained through the nature of biblical Hebrew, they cry out to the exegete for homiletical reflection!

I suggest that we read the present tense here as an insight into the eternal present of divine revelation. We are always and forever pilgrims before the wonders and mysteries of this world; the divine force of life rises to consciousness like the crest of an ocean wave—powerful and majestic for a sublime moment, then returning again to the depths of universal tide and current.

And those revelatory moments—those minutes of Sinai resurfaced—they come to us as a mysterious blend of sensation and awareness. They are sight and sound, separate and unified. They are the tones of nature's music, the speech of Being that whispers beneath, waiting to be heard; and they are the colors and lights absorbed through our eyes—the gateway to a transformed mind that is awake to the radiance of divine revelation.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.