“I am the Lord your God”

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

Our parasha opens as follows (Vayikra 19):

(1) And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying:

(2) Speak to all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael, and say to them:

     You shall be holy!

     For I, the Lord your God, am holy.

(3) You shall fear every man his mother and his father

     And you shall observe My shabbatot;

    I am the Lord your God.

(4) Do not turn to the idols, nor shall you make for yourselves molten gods;

    I am the Lord your God.

Both Rashi and Ramban understand these verses as taking us back to Mount Sinai, on the basis of a midrash Chazal in the Sifra (Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim 1:1):

This [introduction] teaches that this unit was uttered at the gathering [of all of Am Yisrael at Sinai]… since most of the elements of Torah are dependent on it.

The command to Moshe to speak to “all of the congregation of Bnei Yisrael” hints to the gathering of the entire nation at Sinai, and the recurring motif, “I am the Lord your God,” recalls the first of the Ten Commandments.

Furthermore, the opening verses of the parasha set down a series of mitzvot that are clearly related to the Ten Commandments:

“You shall fear every man his mother and his father” – “Honor your father and your mother”

“And observe My shabbatot” – “Observe the Shabbat day to sanctify it”

“Do not turn to the idols, nor shall you make for yourselves molten gods” – “You shall have no other gods before Me; you shall not make for yourselves a graven image, nor any likeness…”

Moreover, the command, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” can be understood as an elaboration on or explanation of the command, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain” (because of the holiness of God’s Name), such that the opening verses of Parashat Kedoshim are connected to the first five of the Ten Commandments.

The recurring motif “I am the Lord your God” appeared three times already in the previous chapter (18), in the introduction and conclusion to the prohibited sexual unions. Where does this formula appear for the first time in the Torah, and what does it express?

The first appearance is in Sefer Shemot, Parashat Vaera, where God declares:

“And I will take you unto Me for a people, and I will be to you a God, and you will know that I am the Lord your God Who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (Shemot 6:7)

If we follow the appearances of this expression throughout the rest of the Torah, we find that it is almost always explicitly linked to the exodus. The prohibited sexual unions are introduced with the words”

Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them:

I am the Lord your God;

Like the actions of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, you shall not do… (Vayikra 18:2-3)

Towards the end of Parashat Kedoshim (19:34), we find:

The stranger who sojourns with you shall be for you like the home born among you,

And you shall love him as yourself,

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt;

I am the Lord your God.

And again, just two verses later (19:36):

You shall not do unrighteousness in judgment…

I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

In the unit devoted to tzitzit (Bamidbar 15:41), the Torah uses this closing formula twice, once again making mention of the exodus:

I am the Lord your God

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be for you a God;

I am the Lord your God.

The meaning of this formula is the basis upon which R. Yehuda Ha-Levi wrote his Sefer Ha-Kuzari, defining the foundation of our faith not as a universal belief in the Creator of the world and of man, which would obligate all human beings, but rather as belief in the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the God Who brought Am Yisrael out of Egypt. Our faith is not in the God of nature, but rather the God of Jewish history, not universal human religious faith, but rather the faith of a national Torah that is unique to Am Yisrael.

The Kuzari king questions this definition, asking the sage:

“Should you, O Jew, not have said that you believe in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide; He Who created you, and Who sustains you; the Possessor of such attributes that any believer subscribes to, and for the sake of which he aspires to truth and justice…?”

To this the sage replies that the foundation of our faith is the exodus from Egypt – in other words, the historic mission of our nation. For this reason only, Am Yisrael is obligated concerning the Torah taught by Moshe, by virtue of the exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. This fits well with and explains the expression, “I am the Lord your God,” which is central to the exodus episode and appears for the first time in that context. For this reason, too, the formula continues to appear in the context of the Exodus throughout the rest of the Torah.

I am the Lord your God

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,

From the house of slavery.

The Ten Commandments given at Sinai are a continuation of the story of the exodus – God’s revelation in history as forging the nation that emerged from Egypt. Therefore, God’s word at Sinai is directed, first and foremost, at the nation that accepted it at Sinai, declaring, “We shall do and we shall hear”.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments, concerning Shabbat, as it appears in Sefer Shemot (20), gives as its reason only the Shabbat of Creation. In Sefer Devarim (5), however, the commandment of Shabbat is explained as a reminder of the Exodus:

Shemot 20

Devarim 5

… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day –

Therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.

… In order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as you do, and you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Shabbat day.

 

It is not difficult to understand how the laws of Shabbat and the prohibitions of idolatry are anchored in the exodus from Egypt, but how are we to understand the command, “You shall fear every man his mother and his father” as being related to God bringing us out of Egypt? Fear of or deference to one’s parents is seemingly a universal moral principle; it would seem to apply even without any connection to God’s historical revelation. However, while further on in the parasha we find mitzvot whose emphasis is not necessarily connected to the exodus, the command “You shall fear each man his mother and father” is certainly connected to the Ten Commandments, and specifically the first half, which is enclosed within a clear framework:

I am the Lord your God

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,

From the house of slavery…

… In order that your days be lengthened

Upon the land       

Which the Lord your God gives to you.

All of the content in between is binding by virtue of the Torah and the tradition that the nation that came out of Egypt accepted upon itself.

In truth, the command “You shall fear each man his mother and father” can be interpreted in light of the exodus, since it is the mother and father who inculcate this tradition in the consciousness of their children. They not only bring them into the natural world, but also pass down the tradition of the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the promise of the land, where this holiness is manifest and where the Torah must be observed.

The Prohibition of Leftover Meat (19:5-8) and the Law of the Shifcha Charufa (19:20-22)

These units contain neither the formula “I am the Lord,” nor “I am the Lord your God,” and they are more similar to the general style of Sefer Vayikra. Ramban, in his usual style, offers a hint that these units represent a link between the command, “You shall be holy…” and the rest of Sefer Vayikra.

Gifts to the Poor

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest.

And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather the single grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra 19:9-10)

For the fourth time in our parasha, we encounter the formula, “I am the Lord your God.” Do the obligatory gifts to the poor have anything to do with the first five of the Ten Commandments and with the exodus from Egypt?

While at first glance there might seem to be no apparent connection, upon deeper study we find that there certainly is a link. Only God Who brought His people out of the house of slavery can go on to command them to share the produce of their land with the poor and with the stranger. The commandment concerning these gifts does not present charity as an act of giving out of the goodness of one’s heart. Charitable beneficence is a universal phenomenon; helping others is a value in every society. The charity that the Torah is commanding here is not an act of generosity, but rather an act of justice. The poor and the stranger have a rightful share in the produce and the fruits of the land. The landowner’s obligation in this regard arises from the fact that we were all impoverished slaves in Egypt, and therefore the Lord our God, Who brought us out from there, obligates us to share our bounty with others. A person who fulfils his obligation and gives gifts of the produce and fruits of the Land of Israel to the poor is not giving of his own produce, of what the Creator has given him through the nature of Creation and of the land. Rather, he gives the poor what is rightfully theirs, because in Egypt we were all equals in slavery and poverty.

This is the meaning of the emphasis on “I am the Lord your God” where it comes to gifts to the poor, the prohibitions on taking interest, the special prohibition against cheating a stranger, and the special treatment of orphans and widows. All of these laws are not just a matter of universal charity, but rather one of justice, and they all resonate with the essence of Am Yisrael and the exodus from Egypt.

At this point, the parasha moves on to the second half of the Ten Commandments, with its universal commands that stand alone, with no reference to the Exodus.

I am the Lord

You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, neither lie to one another.

And you shall not swear by My Name falsely,

nor shall you profane the Name of your God;

I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him; the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with you all night until the morning.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God; I am the Lord.

You shall do not unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand aside when mischief befalls your neighbor; I am the Lord.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and do not suffer sin on his account.

You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself;

I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:9-18)

The opening verses of the parasha, as mentioned, include a four-fold repetition of the formula, “I am the Lord your God.” Here we find four repetitions of “I am the Lord.” The eighteen prohibitions and four positive commands listed here flow explicitly from the second half of the Ten Commandments – the universal aspect.

The clear difference between the two tablets is that the commandments on the first tablet come with explanations: “… Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery… for I, the Lord… visiting the iniquity of fathers upon sons… for God will not hold him guiltless… for in six days the Lord made… in order that your days be lengthened…”

The commandments on the second tablet, in contrast, offer no explanations; they are simply formulated as prohibitions: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Any explanation in the moral realm –which obligates the “children of Noach” as well – can only limit and weaken the command. In our parasha, this idea is emphasized through the expression, “I am the Lord.” You shall not steal – because it’s forbidden! We tell a young child, “God sees you,” “God is watching,” “God is everywhere.” An adult is supposed to know this on his own. Even if he calls God by some other name – “values” or “morality” or “conscience” – it means that God is present in his heart, in his values, in his conscience. No further explanation is needed.

The first tablet, introduced with the exodus as its explanation or foundation, is expressed in our parasha by means of the formula “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, do (or do not do) these things because God brought you out of the land of Egypt – or, to put it in simpler language, “Jews don’t behave that way.” The concept behind the second tablet is expressed in our parasha by means of the formula, “I am the Lord” – Who is omnipresent, including in the heart and conscience of man, and therefore it is forbidden to steal and to do evil to your neighbor, and all the other prohibitions.

There are also positive commands: “In righteousness shall you judge your fellow,” “You shall surely rebuke your fellow,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself….” As in the second tablet of the Ten Commandments, the prohibitions concern “your fellow,” “your brother,” “your neighbor.” They do not express God’s guidance of and intervention in history, but rather His Presence in the absolute morality that is referred to by some people as “conscience,” “morals,” or other names, but always reflects the Divine image in man.

In this unit, then, the Torah signals absolute morality through the use of the expression “I am the Lord.” There are things that one may not do because a moral person does not behave in that way. This idea precedes (conceptually) Sinai and obligates every person qua person. In addition to that, there are things that one may not do because Jews do not behave in that way, as a result of all that our ancestors went through in all their exiles.

Universal Religious Prohibitions and Prohibitions Unique to Am Yisrael in Their Land

You shall keep My statutes:

You shall not allow your cattle to gender with a diverse kind;

You shall not sow your field with mingled seed,

Nor shall a garment mingled of linen and wool come upon you…

And when you shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food,

Then you shall reckon their fruit as uncircumcised;

Three years shall it be as uncircumcised for you; it shall not be eaten.

But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy for praise giving to the Lord.

And in the fifth year you shall eat of its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase; I am the Lord your God.

You shall not eat [anything] with its blood,

Neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times.

You shall not round the corners of your heads,

Neither shall you mar the corners of your beard.

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am the Lord.

Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot,

Lest the land fall to harlotry and the land become full of foulness.

You shall keep My shabbatot and revere My Sanctuary;

I am the Lord.

You shall not turn to mediums or wizards,

Nor seek to be defiled by them; I am the Lord your God.

You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear your God; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:19; 23-32)

These verses present a challenge and force us to examine more deeply the distinction proposed above between “I am the Lord” and “I am the Lord your God.” The prohibitions against “using enchantments,” “rounding corners of your heads,” and “marring corners of beards” all use the formula “I am the Lord,” while the prohibitions against “turning to mediums or wizards” conclude with the formula “I am the Lord your God.” Observance of shabbatot and reverence for the Sanctuary belong to the category of “I am the Lord,” but as previously cited, the verse concerning fearing one’s mother and father and observing Shabbat ends with “I am the Lord your God.” How are we to understand these distinctions?

The simplest element here is Shabbat. As we know, Shabbat has dual meaning. Both “I am the Lord” and “I am the Lord your God” are part of Shabbat, and this dual significance is readily apparent in the two different versions of the Ten Commandments. In Sefer Shemot, the command concerning Shabbat is explained in terms of “religious” faith; since God rested on the seventh day of Creation, so we must rest every Shabbat. In Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, the explanation for the command of Shabbat is based on the exodus from Egypt, and in light of this we are commanded “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.” It is therefore clear why the commands of Shabbat in our parasha conclude with “I am the Lord” – Who sees everything and is present everywhere, such that observance of Shabbat is “a commemoration of the act of Creation” – and also with “I am the Lord your God,” active in history, such that observance of Shabbat is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.”

What of the prohibitions against communing with the dead, the ways of wizardry and enchantment, mediums, and divining? Are we commanded to avoid these by virtue of the concept of “I am the Lord,” the Omnipresent, or by virtue of “I am the Lord your God,” Who brought you out of Egypt?

The prohibitions of eating blood, marring corners of beards, and making cuttings in one’s flesh all warn against harm to the human body as God created it, as well as harm to the human psyche and human morality as implanted in man by the Creator. Therefore, these prohibitions conclude with the formula, “I am the Lord.” Human existence before God is anchored in natural religiosity that is part of Creation, just like the command, “You shall not steal.” Just as a person has a natural sense of morality, so he also has a natural sense of religious feeling. The concept of “I am the Lord” exists in every person to stop him from actions that are self-destructive, such as cutting his flesh as part of a religious ritual. Harming one’s body is forbidden because God created the body and seeks its wholeness and wellbeing; He does not want us to cut ourselves and make marks in our flesh, even in times of sorrow and mourning.

The verses that follow echo the same message: “Do not prostitute your daughter, to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall to harlotry, and the land become full of foulness.” The exploitation of young girls by older people with no conscience is a crime. This has nothing to do with the Exodus from Egypt or the manifestation of God’s Presence in history; rather, it relates to God’s Presence in man, in his psyche, in his conscience.

The same applies to reverence for the Sanctuary. Every person feels awe when he approaches a holy place. One’s natural sensitivity dictates that it is forbidden to violate a Sanctuary.

Hence, these commands conclude with the words, “I am the Lord.”

The Torah prohibits divining and enchantment because they are inherently wrong and unacceptable practices from the point of view of natural religion, even without any connection to the exodus. However, after the exodus, once we have been shown the path to knowing the will of God through the words of the prophets, we certainly have no need for wizards and mediums, for we have Torah and prophets, and God, Who led us out of Egypt, continues to lead us on the straight path. This is in fact precisely the way the command is set forth in Sefer Devarim (18:9-15). First, divination, soothsaying, and enchantment are explicitly defined as “the abominations of those nations,” which cause them to be driven out of the land – in other words, they are abominations even according to the natural religion that obligates every human being. Only after that does the Torah offer a further reason for the prohibition, specific to Am Yisrael:

For these nations… listen to soothsayers, and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from your midst, of your brethren, like me [Moshe]; to him you shall listen.

It is not difficult to understand why honor for the elderly is a universal value and not a principle that is necessarily connected to the exodus. In contrast, the sanctity of the fruits of the land is supported by the formula, “I am the Lord your God,” which expresses a special relationship and God’s choice of His nation and His inheritance. The special status of the land cannot be explained without reference to God’s revelation in history at the time of the exodus, and the possession of the land by Am Yisrael.

Prohibitions of Mistreating a Stranger and Unrighteousness in Judgment

And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. Like one born among you shall be the stranger that dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meterage, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just efa, and a just hin shall you have; I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

Therefore you shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and do them; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:33-37)

After eight appearances of the formula “I am the Lord your God” in the unit exhorting “You shall be holy,” and another eight appearances of the formula “I am the Lord,” the Torah now sets down explicitly the key to these two codes.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself – I am the Lord” – by virtue of God’s presence in every place and at every time, and in every human being. In contrast, “You shall love [the stranger] as yourself… I am the Lord your God” is dependent on the exodus and the collective memory of Jewish history. Only on the basis of that memory can a Jew be commanded to treat a stranger with special attention, beyond that extended to any human being, with a special prohibition against wronging him.

Likewise, “you shall not do unrighteousness in judgment” appears twice. Earlier (Vayikra 19:15-16), it appeared in the context of the universal obligation of justice, concluding with “I am the Lord.” Here, at the end of the chapter, in the context of fair and just weights and measures in commerce, the prohibition against unrighteousness in judgment appears again, with explicit emphasis on the exodus. Why is this so?

Rashi explains (Vayikra 19:35):

“You shall not do unrighteousness in judgment” – if this was meant in the legal sense, [it would be redundant, since] it already said, “You shall not do unrighteousness in judgment.” Why, then, the repetition? The command is meant here in the sense of meterage, weights, and measures; this teaches us that one who measures [a certain quantity, in a commercial context] is considered a dayan (judge), for if he is untruthful in the measurement, he is like one who spoils the law. This is called “unrighteousness”; it is something that is hateful and detestable, outlawed, an abomination, and leads to the five results stated in connection with a judge [who bends justice]: he defiles the land, and desecrates God’s Name, and banishes the Divine Presence, and causes Israel to fall by the sword, and leads to their exile from their land.

Seemingly, the emphasis here – in the context of honest commerce – should have been on “I am the Lord,” since God sees all commercial dealings and will surely repay anyone who is dishonest, as we learn in Sefer Devarim (25:16): “For all who do these things, who do unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

However, the emphasis here in our parasha is different:

Just balances, just weights, a just efa, and a just hin shall you have; I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

Here the Torah leaves no room for doubt, stating clearly that these commandments have their foundation in the exodus.

What lies at the foundation of the idea of maintaining proper weights and measures in the marketplace specifically by virtue of, or because of, the exodus?

The experience of Egypt was an experience of oppression. It was not just a matter of being strangers, and not just slavery in general, but cruel oppression. What the Torah means to teach us is that deceit in weights and measures reflects a consciousness that has not internalized the exodus. A merchant who cheats his customers is exploiting their powerlessness; he is oppressing them as the Egyptian taskmasters oppressed Am Yisrael. Beyond the general moral and religious obligation that proceeds from natural religion – i.e., the awareness of God’s Presence in every place – there is a special obligation that is imposed by the memory of the exodus. We must not become oppressors. The prohibition against unrighteousness in judgment therefore appears twice – once in the general context of the justice system, and then again in the special context of the Exodus.

The concluding verse of the chapter is almost identical to the introduction to the unit on prohibited sexual unions, and it concludes with almost exactly the same words. In Parashat Acharei Mot, the unit on prohibited unions opens as follows:

Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: I am the Lord your God.

Like the actions of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, you shall not do; and like the actions of the land of Cana’an, into which I bring you, you shall not do; neither shall you walk in their practices. You shall perform My judgments, and keep My statutes, to walk in them; I am the Lord your God.

You shall therefore keep My statutes, and My judgments, which if a man does – he shall live in them; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 18:2-5)

In exactly the same way, our chapter concludes:

Therefore you shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and do them; I am the Lord.

The conclusion invokes the presence of God at all times and in every place. Thus, the Torah binds the two chapters into a single unit of morality and sanctity, ending with both formulas – “I am the Lord your God” and “I am the Lord,” the double seal of both universal morality and unique religious faith.

Translated by Kaeren Fish