I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).
Thus begins God’s communication with the Jews at the start of the Ten Commandments. The early Torah commentaries struggled with the meaning of this verse. Is it an inseparable part of the Ten Commandments, conveying the command to believe in God, or is it a type of preface or preamble to the commandments themselves? If so, the verse would be similar to the case of a king who entered a city and said to his subjects, “You have accepted my rule; now accept my rules” (Ramban, also cited in the Stone Chumash).
We find a penetrating and innovative understanding of the opening of the Ten Commandments in the commentary of Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, the Ohr HaChaim, on the portion of Acharei Mot. There the Torah discusses at length all the arayot (forbidden sexual relations), and commands, “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness” (Leviticus 18:6). The beginning of this section about arayot is remarkably similar to the beginning of the Ten Commandments. “Speak to the Jews and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 18:2-3). Only afterwards does the Torah proceed with the command, “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness” (Ibid., verse 6).
The Ohr HaChaim asks, “What new insight is reflected in the statement, ‘I am the Lord your God’? Does this imply that until now He was not?” The Torah has already said tens of times that the Lord is the God of Israel. Why repeat it?
He gives a wonderful explanation:
God was very clever in the way He presented arayot. He anticipated the objection of the evil inclination: “How is it possible for a normal human being to control his sexual desires?” . . . Realizing that man would claim the inability to restrain himself, He forestalled such claims by beginning His speech with, “Speak to the Jews and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God.’” For it is true that on a purely human plane, one can claim an inability to control one’s desires. However, since “I am the God of the Jewish people,” i.e., the Jewish people have a certain comprehension of the Divine, this Divine power can be tapped into in order to overcome natural, physical urges. This happens when man resolves to cling to His God. Then he is able to rule over his nature.
According to the Ohr HaChaim, before God prohibited the arayot, which people desire and find hard to resist, He gave them the resources to live up to this holy mission by connecting with God. This connection provides them with superhuman powers of holiness which enable them to overcome and rule over their human, natural desire. There is an important principle here: God does not command anyone to do something which exceeds his capabilities. For before He commands, He grants him special powers so that he can live up to the command if he indeed wishes to do so. This is the significance of the opening statement, “I am the Lord your God.”
We can explain the opening of the Ten Commandments in a similar fashion. “I am the Lord your God,” which means that I will give you the strength to live up to the commandments: “Do not murder.” “Do not steal.” “Honor your father and mother.” “Keep the Sabbath day,” etc.
With this explanation we can suggest a wonderful new understanding of a well-known midrashic story about the giving of the Torah. According to the Midrash, before God offered the Jews the Torah, He went around to the other nations and asked them if they wanted it. Understandably, they immediately asked: “What is written in it?” When God told the descendants of Esau that “Do not murder” is written in it, they responded, “We cannot handle that. It is contrary to our inherited nature, which is ‘You shall live by your sword’ (Genesis 27:40).” When He told the descendants of Ishmael that it says “Do not steal” in the Torah, they replied, “If so, we cannot accept it, for our essence is tied up with theft: ‘His hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him’ (Ibid. 16:12).” The descendants of Ammon said, “Our entire essence is tied up with arayot, since we are the products of an incestuous relationship (Ibid. 19:30-38).” Similarly, all the nations rejected the Torah, until God came to the Jews. They did not ask, “What is written in it?” Rather, they immediately said, “Na’aseh venishma – We will do and we will obey” (Exodus 24:7). That was how they accepted the Torah (Sifrei, Devarim 343).
According to the understanding of the Ohr HaChaim, we can invest this story with greater depth. For in truth the nations were correct that a human being does not naturally have the strength to keep all the commandments of the Torah. Were the Ten Commandments to begin immediately with “Do not have other gods beside Me,” and proceed to “Do not murder,” ”Do not commit adultery,” etc., it is not clear that a human being could live up to such a high ethical standard. This is exactly why the Torah begins with “I am the Lord your God” – because from these words one can draw the needed strength and help he needs to fulfill the commandments. For when man connects with God, his human powers are strengthened and elevated. But the nations missed this when they asked, “What is written in it?” The response they received was only the prohibitions, without an explanation of where the nations could draw the strength to follow them. Accordingly, the nations rejected the commandments. Only the Jews, who said, “We will do and we will obey,” merited first hearing “I am the Lord your God,” and only afterwards the positive and negative commandments. Accordingly, the Jews were able to accept the commandments and live up to them.
This teaches us that Torah can be accepted only with the approach of “We will do and we will obey,” which lifts a person beyond his human abilities and gives him the power to sanctify his nature and elevate his very being, through his connection with the God of Israel.