The First Commandment
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein | February 16, 2017
And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” — Exodus 20:1–2
The Torah portion for this week is Yitro, which means “Jethro,” from Exodus 18:1–20:23, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 6:1–13.
Finally, the moment we have all been waiting for — the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. For weeks, we’ve been leading up to this monumental event. We read about the journey of the children of Israel to Egypt, about their enslavement, and about Moses, the Egyptian prince turned savior of Israel. We experienced the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Finally, at long last, we have arrived at Mount Sinai.
What a moment! ” . . . There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast . . . Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire” (Exodus 19:16–18). For the first – and only – time, God revealed Himself to an entire nation and He gave us the Ten Commandments to follow and live by.
We can imagine the anticipation as God revealed Commandment Number One: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” But wait a second! That sounds much more like an introduction than a commandment! What action are we supposed to take or not take? Most of the other commandments begin, “You shall . . .” or “You shall not . . .” What shall we do, or shall we not do here?
To answer that question we need to ask another one. Why does God refer to Himself as the God “Who brought you out of Egypt” and not the God Who created the world? Surely the creation of the world was God’s most famous act!
The answer is because God wants us to know Him not only as the Creator of the world, but also as its Sustainer. God didn’t make our world and then move on to other things. God is involved in the world and in our personal world, right here, right now. That’s why God referred to Himself as the God Who took the Israelites out of Egypt. That was an event that they experienced on a personal and intimate level. And God wanted them – and us — to know that He is oh-so-very personal, involved in every minutia of life, from the smallest molecule to the greatest ocean and certainly in the lives of us all.
According to the Jewish sages, that’s the meaning of the First Commandment — we are obligated to know that God is part of our lives at every single moment. Knowing that God is present at all times will completely define how we live our lives.
Take a moment and reflect upon God’s presence in your life and allow that knowledge to color the picture of your day. Fulfilling the First Commandment leads to richer, more meaningful days!