Rabbi Avi Goldberg
Former Rosh Kollel in Memphis
In this week’s parsha, we read about Matan Torah, which begins with the first dibrah (commandment):
“I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt…” (Shmot 20:2)
This is Judaism’s fundamental principle.
As the Midrash (BT Makot) famously teaches, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said the first two dibrot directly to Bnei Yisrael, and the remaining eight were said via an emissary – namely, Moshe Rabbeinu. The Midrash’s lesson is that the first two dibrot serve as a foundation for all the other mitzvot. Before we observe the mitzvot, we must first recognize that we are serving Hashem and also negate any other god. Hence, the Mishnah notes, the parsha of “shema” (i.e. the first paragraph of the Shema prayer) precedes the parsha of “v’hayah im shamo’a” (i.e. the second paragraph of the Shema prayer). The former is a manifestation of kabalat ol malchut Shamayim (accepting the yoke of Heaven), and the latter pertains to the mitzvot. Thus, kabalat ol malchut Shamayimcomes before kabalat ol hamitzvot (accepting the yoke of the mitzvot).
Indeed, “I am Hashem, your God” is the basis of our entire faith. Yet, why is HaKadosh Baruch Hu referred to as the One Who took us out of Egypt? Would it not have been more meaningful to portray Hashem as the Creator or to employ another significant description? Why are our faith and all the mitzvot predicated on the fact that Hashem took us out of Egypt?
Approximately 1000 years ago, R’ Yehudah Halevi addressed this very question. He explained that our living encounter with Hashem is the primary reason we serve Him. In contrast to other religions, our faith is based on our direct encounters withHaKadosh Baruch Hu and not only on spiritual theories and ideas. We all stood at Sinai; we all crossed Yam Suf; we all observed the Ten Plagues; and therefore, we believe in Hashem. These events obligate us to do so, because we are certain that they occurred – in the distant or recent past – to us and our People. Also, I experienced these events, and hence, they are connected to me and obligate me.
Judaism is based on this idea, and therefore, Anshei KnessetHaGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) incorporated it into theAmidah prayer in the form of Birkat HaAvot (the first blessing which pertains to the Avot). According to the Shulchan Aruch, one who recites this brachah without kavanah (loosely, proper intention) must recite the Amidah anew. Although the Rama concurs with this ruling in theory, he declares that one need not repeat the Amidah – lest the repetition be recited without kavanah as well.
During Birkat HaAvot, we proclaim that we are praying to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The brachah initially refers to Hashem as “our God” – the One Whom we encounter directly on a daily basis and the One Who gave us life and watches over us. Second, Hashem is called, “God of our fathers” – Whom our fathers and grandfathers believed in. Next, Hashem is referred to as “God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak…” – the One Who chose the Avot. Only afterwards is HaKadosh Baruch Hu described as “Great”, “Mighty”, and “Awesome”.
Judaism involves serving Hashem directly and in accordance with the Avot’s direct encounter. These encounters are a necessary precondition for the stage of definitions, theories, and theology.
Similarly, every morning we recite the shirah (song) that Bnei Yisrael sang at Yam Suf. (This shirah appears in last week’s parsha.) We say:
“This is my God, and I will build Him a sanctuary, the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.” (Shmot 15:2)
We must first recognize HaKadosh Baruch Hu in our lives. Each and every person has his or her own personal encounter with Hashem. Next, we must also acknowledge the ancient bond between our forefathers and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Our generation has witnessed a tremendous awakening to teshuvah as well as numerous direct encounters with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We have experienced national events which our forefathers could only dream about during the long millennia of the Exile. Yet, at the same time, we have seen a denigration of the values which previous generations held dear.
May we be privileged to witness a fulfillment of the Navi’s words: