“I am the Lord your God”

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Shemot 20:2)
This verse, and the commandment of faith that rests upon it, are the foundation of everything. For this reason, this shiur will depart from the somewhat independent exegetical approach that characterizes this series, and instead adhere to the classical commentators and the codifiers of the books of Mitzvot, our rabbis and teachers.
  1. Can faith be commanded?
The author of Halakhot Gedolot does not count this verse as a commandment.[1] He seems to suggest that faith is the foundation upon which all the commandments rest, but faith in God cannot itself be commanded, because a commandment in and of itself assumes the existence of the God Who commands.
Ramban, in his gloss on the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, arrives at a similar conclusion:
Nevertheless, I note that the author of Halakhot [Gedolot] does not count this as a commandment included within the 613… And his reasoning would seem to be that the total of 613 mitzvot are simply God’s decrees… while faith in the existence of God Who made His existence known to us through signs and wonders and through the revelation of the Divine Presence is the essence and root from which the commandments proceed; it cannot be counted among them. (Positive commandment 1).
An indirect response to this argument is found in the definition of the mitzva in Sefer Ha-Chinukh (commandment 25):
The content of the commandment of belief in God is that one fix in his soul that such is the truth, and that the opposite is in no way possible. And if he is asked about it, he will respond to any enquirer that this is what his heart believes, and he will not acknowledge the opposite, even if they threaten to kill him. All of this strengthens and reinforces the belief in his heart, when the matter is brought from potential into actuality – in other words, when he affirms with his words that which his heart has decided. And if he merits to ascend the levels of wisdom, and his heart understands and his eyes see, as if with an overt miracle, that this faith that he has is true and clear, and it is impossible for things to be otherwise, then he fulfills this positive commandment in the optimal way.
The commandment of faith can assume the existence of a God Who commands, for after this assumption is made there is still room for the commandment of faith in the form of inner work to inculcate that faith deeply in one’s heart and to fix it in his psyche, to the point where this faith guides him in all his actions – even if he is forced to give his life for it.
In any event, the other codifiers of the commandments (with the exception of Halakhot Gedolot) include this among the 613 commandments. We shall address other responses to the argument associated with the approach of Halakhot Gedolot below.
  1. Definition of the commandment
The Rambam, along with all codifiers of the commandments, explains that this mitzva entails knowing and believing. (The content of this knowledge and belief will be addressed separately further on). However, Ibn Ezra, in his short commentary on our verse, defines the mitzva in a different way – as entailing love, fear, and closeness:
Anokhi” (I) – meaning that one should know God and love Him with all his heart, and cleave to Him, and have Him in mind constantly, and never for a moment stop fearing Him.
Perhaps Ibn Ezra also struggled with the question we raised above regarding the possibility of commanding faith, which is the basis of all commands.  It is for this reason that he explains the mitzva as entailing the nurturing of feelings that are the result of the faith upon which all the commandments are based. In the wake of faith come knowledge, love, cleaving, and fear.
Another important opinion in this regard is that of Ramban, who also references Chazal’s teachings. He, too, offers a solution to our original question:
In the teachings of Chazal, it is explicitly taught that this [commandment] entails acceptance of God’s Sovereignty, which is belief in Divinity. We are taught in the Mekhilta: “‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ – Why was this taught? Because God says, ‘I am the Lord your God’ – this may be compared to the new king of a region. His servants tell him, ‘Issue decrees for them.’ He says, ‘No. After they accept my sovereignty, I shall issue decrees. For if they do not accept my sovereignty, how will they [agree to] carry out my decrees?’”
From the Ramban’s words, it seems that faith in the existence of God precedes all the commandments – including the commandment of “I am the Lord your God….” This commandment requires, as a logical precondition, the acceptance of God’s existence and His presence. Thus, the commandment “I am the Lord your God…” deals with acceptance of His sovereignty over us and our willingness to obey His commandments, and this is the first mitzva, preceding the practical instructions of the mitzvot that follow.
This represents an indirect answer to R. Yehuda Ha-Levi’s question regarding why the commandment describes God as the one “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” rather than the one “Who created you”:
The reason for [the verse saying] “from the house of slavery” is that they had been in Egypt, in the house of slavery, subjugated by Pharaoh, and in this verse they were told that the great, noble, awesome Lord would be their God, and they would serve Him, for He had delivered them from the slavery of Egypt, as stated in the verse: “They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt”… And this commandment is referred to in Chazal’s teachings as the acceptance of Divine sovereignty. (Ramban, Shemot 20:2)
The acceptance of God's sovereignty flows from the fact that He brought us out of Pharaoh's servitude in order to serve Him – not to be “free” in the sense of having no authority at all. During the plagues, Moshe did not tell Pharaoh simply to "Let My people go," but rather added, "That they may serve Me" (Shemot 7:16 and elsewhere).[2] Thus, acceptance of God's sovereignty and His commandments is based on our faith that He brought us out of Egypt:
For Bnei Yisrael are Mine as servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra 25:55)
In order that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be our God; I am the Lord your God. (Bamidbar 15:40-41)
This may help to illuminate the explanation offered by the author of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Gadol (Semag, the Tosafist R. Moshe of Coucy) for the commandment of "I am the Lord your God":
The first commandment, a positive command, is to believe that He Who gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moshe Rabbenu, was the Lord our God Who brought us out of Egypt. And this is as God said when He gave the Torah: "I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Gadol 1).
The Semag views the essence of this commandment as the identification of the Giver of the Torah with the God Who brought us out of Egypt.
We might summarize the three values that we have discussed thus far – the commandment of faith in God's existence, the acceptance of His sovereignty, and the commandment to love and cleave to Him – as we find them in the opening verses of the shema:
"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God – the Lord is One" – the commandment of faith;
"Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever" – acceptance of His sovereignty;
"And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" – the command to love and cleave to Him.
However, it must be noted that Ramban himself also subscribes to the Rambam's view that the commandment is to know and believe in God's existence:
This statement is a positive commandment. God says, “I am the Lord…,” thereby instructing and commanding them to know and believe that the Lord exists and He is their God – in other words: He is; He always was; everything proceeded from Him through His will and ability; and He is their God, Whom they are obligated to serve. God then says, “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” – for His bringing them out of there indicates His existence and His will. For it was with His knowledge and through His Providence that they came out of there. It also points to the idea that since the beginning of the world nothing changes in Him. It points to His ability, and His ability points to His uniqueness, as it is written, “In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the land.” And this is the reason for the clause, “Who brought you out…” – for they knew and were witnesses to all of this. (Ramban, Shemot 20:2)
According to what Ramban says here – which seems to be a different message from the one we have associated with him up to this point – the belief and knowledge required of us are the faith that God exists and that everything exists and happens by His will. The exodus from Egypt was intended to demonstrate God's power – the “strong hand and outstretched arm” – and that unlimited power shows that there is none like God. In Parashat Bo (Shemot 13:16), Ramban expounds at length on the importance of the memory of the miracles of the exodus as a means of instructing us in the faith and knowledge of God as He Who created us and watches over us. Here, Ramban offers a view similar to that of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi (to be addressed below), that the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned as proof that God is our Creator and Protector, and not as a value in and of itself, obligating us to accept His sovereignty, as suggested in Ramban's words cited previously.
  1. The content (substance) of faith
The Rambam rules that the content of the faith referred to in the verse, "I am the Lord your God" is God's existence and His creation of the world:
The most fundamental of foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being Who brought into being all of existence, and that all that exists in the heavens and the earth and what is between them, came into existence only by virtue of the truth of His Being… This entity is the God of the world, master of the entire earth… And the knowledge of this concept is a positive commandment, as it is written, “I am the Lord your God.” (Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:1-6)
The first commandment is that we are commanded to believe in God's Divinity – meaning, that we must believe that there is an Original Cause and Source of existence Who brings all creations into being, as it is written, “I am the Lord your God." (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 1)
Surprisingly, the Rambam ignores the latter part of the verse – "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt" – and does not count faith in the exodus from Egypt as one of the principles of faith. Ramban, as noted, adds the notion of faith in Divine Providence, for which the exodus serves as proof. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh also includes the element of Divine Providence that we learn from the Exodus:
And the reason for saying, “Who brought you out” is to tell us: Do not let your hearts be tempted to view your exodus from the servitude of Egypt and the plagues that struck the Egyptians as a matter of chance. Rather, know that it is I Who brought you out, deliberately, through Providence, as He promised to our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. (Sefer Ha-Chinukh, commandment 25)
The source that elaborates in the greatest detail concerning faith in God's constant Providence as arising from the memory of the Exodus – as the crux of the commandment of faith contained in the command, "I am the Lord your God" – is the Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Semak, the Tosafist R. Yitzchak of Corbeil). According to Semak, the world and our faith in the future redemption are both dependent on faith in Divine Providence:
To know – meaning, as opposed to the philosophers, who claimed that the world operates itself, by means of the stars, having no ruler, and that even the splitting of the Red Sea and the exodus from Egypt, and all the wonders that were performed, were done by the stars. We have to believe that [in these matters] they speak falsely. Verily, the Holy One, blessed be He, rules the entire world by His word. He brought us out of Egypt and performed all the wonders for us, and no one so much as lifts his finger here below [in this world] unless it has been decreed on High, as it is written, “A man’s steps are set by God” (Tehillim 37:23). And this is the basis of what our Sages taught, that after death, when a person is judged, he is asked, “Did you await God’s salvation?” Nowhere is such a commandment written, but this is its basis. We are forced to conclude that God is saying, as it were, “Just as I want you to believe in Me, that I brought you out – so I want you to believe in Me, that I am the Lord your God, and I will eventually gather you up and deliver you.” And so may He deliver us, extending His mercy to us once again, as it is written, “And He will return and gather you up from among all the nations.” (Semak, commandment 1).
We conclude with the view of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi in his Sefer Ha-Kuzari, which we will not quote here in the interests of brevity. Like the Rambam, R. Yehuda Ha-Levi also views the essence of the commandment of faith as concerning God's existence and His creation of the world. However, we, as human beings, could not experience the process of Creation, which preceded our existence. To his view, faith is not primarily intellectual, as the Rambam has it, but rather an inner state that can lead to prophetic experience, which is its purpose. This inner state can be attained only by virtue of the collective national memory that is passed from generation to generation: the memory of the exodus. Faith in the exodus from Egypt includes within it the faith that God exists and that He created us.[3]
Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  The first positive commandments that he counts are keriat shema, tefillin, mezuza, and tzitzit.
[2]  As opposed to the movement for the liberation of the slaves in America, whose slogan was limited to, "Let my people go."
[3]  In this matter, he disagrees with Ibn Ezra, who writes that the constant recalling of the exodus is meant for those of weak intellect, and that it is they who need the experience of this tangible memory.