Parshat Yitro 7

“And Hashem said to him, “Descend and then ascend – you and Ahron with you. And the Kohanim and the nation should not violate the boundary lest He send destruction among them.” (Shemot 19:24)

Hashem’s influence descends upon Sinai. Boundaries are set surrounding the mountain. The people are not permitted to approach the mountain beyond these boundaries. Hashem commands Moshe to remind the people that these boundaries cannot be violated. If this injunction is ignored, they will be severely punished.

Rashi explains that Moshe was permitted to ascend to the highest point on the mountain. Ahron could accompany him during most of his ascent. The Kohanim were allowed to ascend to a lower point. The rest of the nation was forbidden from approaching Sinai.[1]

What was the meaning of the boundaries? Why were these various individuals and groups permitted to ascend to different levels of the mountain?

Maimonides, explains that we cannot achieve complete understanding of the Almighty. Our material nature limits our ability. We can never completely overcome this limit. However, we can attain some understanding of Hashem. The level of comprehension we can acquire varies. This comprehension varies directly with one’s spiritual level. Moshe reached the highest possible spiritual plane. He achieved a correspondingly profound level of understanding of the Divine nature.

Maimonides seems to suggest that this concept is represented by the various boundaries. Ascending the mountain represents attaining understanding of the Almighty. Moshe could climb to the highest point on the mountain. This symbolizes the unique understanding he achieved of the Almighty. Ahron was not as spiritually perfected as Moshe. He could not attain the same profound comprehension. This is represented by the prohibition against accompanying Moshe to his destination. The Kohanim and the nation were less spiritually developed. They were assigned boundaries corresponding with their levels. Their boundaries represent the levels of understanding attainable.

Hashem warns each group against trespassing beyond its assigned border. A person must recognize personal limitation. Passing beyond one’s boundary represents striving for a level of understanding beyond one’s ability. This will result in disaster. The individual who overreaches will not properly understand the Divine essence. Instead, this individual will develop a flawed conception. In order to avoid false conclusion regarding Hashem, each person must respect personal limitations.[2]

“I am Hashem your G-d that brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Shemot 20:2)

This is the first statement of the Decalogue. Hashem identifies Himself as the G-d that redeemed Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. Most authorities regard this statement as a commandment. This presents a problem. A commandment engenders some obligation. It requires us to perform some action or accept some conviction. However, this statement is merely the presentation of a fact. What does this commandment require of us?

The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol offers an interesting interpretation of this mitzvah. His explanation is based upon a careful interpretation of the passage. The pasuk is the Almighty’s introduction to the revelation of the Torah. He identifies Himself. He says that He is the G-d that redeemed the nation from Egypt. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol concludes that the mitzvah requires that we acknowledge that the G-d that revealed the Torah is the same Deity that redeemed us from Egypt.[3]

Most other authorities maintain that this mitzvah obligates us to acknowledge the existence of G-d. This interpretation of the mitzvah presents an obvious problem. What is meant by the term “G-d”? This term has different meanings to different people. In itself, it is rather vague. The term needs some clarification. Precisely, in what must we believe?

Maimonides contends that the term “G-d” refers to a Deity that is the cause of all that exists. He explains that we are obligated to acknowledge that there exists a Deity that is the cause of all other existence. This means that all that exist is a consequence of His will. Without this will nothing would exist. However, if nothing else existed, He would still exist.[4]

Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve, in his Kuzari, seems to object to this definition. In order to understand his objection, some initial clarification is needed. Rav Yehuda HaLeyve does not disagree with Maimonides’ assertion that the Hashem is the cause of all existence. This is one of the lessons of the Torah. However, he points out that the commandment requires that we acknowledge the existence of G-d. His objection relates to defining the term “G-d” as the cause of all existence. What is the basis of this objection?

Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve contends that the commandment does not obligate us in abstract philosophical speculation. In other words, the commandment cannot obligate us to prove through philosophical analysis the existence of G-d. Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve assumes a skeptical attitude towards such speculations. The great philosophers have different understandings of G-d. Some acknowledge that He is the Creator. Others reject this conclusion. Even if the speculations were conclusive, they might exceed the ability of the common person. The “G-d” identified by the commandment must be a Deity that everyone can acknowledge, not just the great scholars.

On this basis, it seems that Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve would reject Maimonides’ description of the commandment. It is likely that he would argue that Maimonides defines the commandment in a manner that requires philosophical speculation. How would one prove that Hashem is the cause of all existence? This would require an analysis that may exceed the ability of the common person!

What is Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve’s understanding of the mitzvah? He explains that we are obligated to believe in the G-d of the forefathers that led Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt and gave the Torah. He contends that anyone can make such an affirmation. This is a G-d that was encountered through personal experience and is known to subsequent generations though an unassailable chain of tradition. In other words, this G-d is revealed in history. Anyone can accept an historical fact![5]

In order to better understand the dispute between Maimonides and Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve, it is helpful to consider a few scenarios. First, imagine a person that believes in G-d that delivered Bnai Yisrael from Egypt and gave the Torah. However, this person does not understand that this G-d is the cause of all existence. According to Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve, this person’s convictions do not conform to the Torah. However, it cannot be said that this person does not acknowledge the existence of G-d. Maimonides would clearly disagree. He would contend that this person does not fulfill the most basic of mitzvot. He does not acknowledge the existence of G-d.

Second, consider a person that accepts the existence of a Deity that is the cause of all existence. However, this person does not know that this G-d redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah. Maimonides would contend that this person’s belief system is not in conformity with the Torah. However, the primary command of acknowledging G-d has been fulfilled. Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve seems to adopt the position that this person has not complied with the basic mitzvah of acknowledging G-d.

It is important to clearly understand the basis of the three positions we have described. Each position reflects a fundamentally different understanding of this commandment.

The position of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol is the most astounding of the three positions. According to this interpretation, the commandment does not directly require an affirmation of the existence of G-d. Instead, the mitzvah requires that we acknowledge that the Deity that gave the Torah is the same G-d that redeemed us from Egypt. The commandment requires that we affirm the origins of the Torah. We must place the Torah in its proper context. We must appreciate that the Torah is a divinely revealed truth. Of course, this does imply acknowledgement of the existence of G-d. However, the commandment is formulated as an acknowledgement of the nature of the Torah. It is not inherently fashioned as an acknowledgement of G-d’s existence.

Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve and Maimonides disagree with this position. They argue that we are directly commanded to acknowledge the existence of G-d. However, they differ in the specifics of this obligation. Now, let us consider this dispute.

Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve’s position is more easily understood. We have already explained his reasons for rejecting Maimonides’ approach to this mitzvah. However, it is important to appreciate the outcome of Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve’s formulation. Essentially, he contends that we are obligated to acknowledge G-d as He has overtly and manifestly revealed Himself. He made Himself known through the forefathers – the Avot, through the wonders He performs and through revelation at Sinai. We are obligated to acknowledge the G-d that is manifested through personal experience and known through tradition.

Maimonides requires that we acknowledge the existence of a Deity that is the cause of all that exists. What is Maimonides’ reason for insisting on this somewhat abstract formulation of the mitzvah?

Maimonides provides an important insight into his position in his Moreh Nevuchim. He begins with the premise that the perfection of a person’s soul is determined by the degree to which the person perceives actual reality. Therefore, various mistakes have differing degrees of impact on human perfection. A misconception regarding an insignificant issue does not have a substantial impact upon human perfection. However, an error regarding a basic reality has a serious impact upon the soul’s perfection.

Let us consider a simple example. Assume a person thinks that Reuven is sitting. However, really Reuven is standing. How serious is this person’s misconception of reality? It is not very serious. Consequently, this error has little impact on the person’s soul. Let us contrast this with a person that believes that the earth is flat or a person that sees ghosts and demons around every corner. This person’s perception of reality is seriously flawed. A more basic aspect of reality is denied. The impact of such a misconception is far more serious. As a result, these misconceptions have a significant impact on the person’s perfection.[6]

Let us proceed one step further in this analysis. What is the most basic aspect of reality? The answer is that all that exists is a result of G-d. He is the most fundamental aspect of the universe and all that exists. Denial of the existence of a Deity that is the cause of all reality is the greatest possible misconception! No other single error can have the same degree of negative impact upon the soul.

We can now understand Maimonides interpretation of the mitzvah to acknowledge G-d. The Torah is a blueprint. It describes the convictions and behaviors of the perfected individual. Maimonides contends that this perfection requires more than mere acknowledgement of G-d. Human perfection is achieved through acknowledging the fundamental nature of reality. We must understand that the entire reality that surrounds us is based upon the existence of G-d. He is the basis and source of all reality.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 19:24.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 5.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe of Kotzi, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Mitzvat Aseh 1.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:1-3.

[5] Rabbaynu Yehuda HaLeyve, Kuzari, part I, sections 11-25.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 36.