Notes on the first statement of the Decalogue

I am Hashem your G-d Who took you out from the Land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. (Shemot 20:2)

1. The description of Hashem as Redeemer.

Parshat Yitro describes the communication of the Aseret HaDibrot – the Decalogue – to Bnai Yisrael. The first statement of Decalogue is contained in the above passage. In this statement, Hashem introduces Himself as the G-d Who redeemed the Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. Our Sages note that Hashem does not introduce Himself as Creator. Instead, He describes Himself as the redeemer of Bnai Yisrael. Why does He choose to refer to Himself in this manner? Rashi quotes the Midrash as explaining that Hashem was communicating that the redemption of the nation from Egypt was in-itself an adequate event to bind the nation in service to Hashem.[1] In other words, the message of the Hashem’s statement is that because He redeemed the nation from Egypt, the nation owes its service to Him.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that this first statement establishes the unique relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. This relationship was established or demonstrated through His rescue of the nation from oppression and the annihilation by the Egyptians. In this context – as a basis for the unique bond between Hashem and His nation – His role as Creator is not relevant. Acknowledgement and service to Hashem as Creator are responsibilities shared by all of humanity. He is the Creator of all humankind. Redemption from Egypt provides a basis for service to Hashem that is unique to Bnai Yisrael.

2. The purpose of the first statement of the Decalogue.

Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the Midrash’s comments provides an important insight into the purpose and objective of this first statement of the Decalogue. The objective of this statement is not to educate the nation regarding Hashem’s nature or His relationship with the universe and reality. If this were the intention of the statement, then it would have indeed been appropriate for Hashem to introduce Himself as the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. This description provides a more fundamental understanding to Hashem’s relationship to all that exists than reference to His redemption of Bnai Yisrael. Instead, the objective of this introduction is to establish a basis or to serve as a preamble to the commandments that will follow. Bnai Yisrael are poised to enter into an exclusive relationship with Hashem. This introduction explains the foundation, rational, and the ethical imperative that underlie this relationship. We are compelled to serve the One who redeemed us from certain annihilation in Egypt.[2]

3. Conflicting perceptions of Hashem.

Rashi continues his comments on the above passage. Again, drawing from the Midrash, he explains that there is an alternative explanation of the passage. The nation had observed Hashem at the Reed Sea as a young warrior vanquishing His enemies. Now, at Sinai, they see Him as a compassionate elder. These vastly different perceptions seem irreconcilable and suggest that the nation has witnessed the acts of two different deities – that the deity that had ruthlessly destroyed the Egyptians could not possibly be the same as the deity of Sinai. Hashem addressed this notion by responding, “I am Hashem your G-d that took you out to Egypt…” One deity destroyed Egypt and now, presents Himself at Sinai.

Rashi’s comments from the Midrash present two challenges. First, it is clear from the Midrash that Bnai Yisrael believed that one god could not be responsible for both the destruction of Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Wherein lies the contradiction in these two perceptions of Hashem? Second, the Midrash seems to attribute a message to the statement that is not readily evident from the statement. What evidence does the Midrash find in the passage to support its interpretation?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the Midrash is noting that the perception of Hashem’s nature that emerged from the destruction of the Egyptians at the Reed Sea was that He is a G-d of vengeance. He destroyed the idolatrous Egyptians who had persecuted His nation. He showed no compassion for His enemies and granted them no mercy. The G-d revealed in the Decalogue was very different from this vengeful deity. He instructed His servant to treat each other with justice. He tought them to control their passions and not needlessly harm others. Hashem’s servants must control their passions. They may not even covet another’s possessions. These two perceptions seemed contradictory to Bnai Yisrael. It seemed that two different deities had revealed themselves – one a mighty god of wrath and vengeance, the other a god of love and compassion. At Sinai, Hashem responded: I am One. The G-d revealed at Sinai is the self-same G-d Who revealed Himself at the Reed Sea.

What evidence of this message did the Midrash find in the passage? Rav Soloveitchik explain that the Midrash is based upon the very first word of the passage. In the Hebrew language there are two words that can be used to communicate “I” – the first person. Most commonly the word ani is used. Occasionally, the word anochi is employed. What is the difference between these two words? Generally, the term anochi is used when the speaker wishes to emphasis himself as the subject. Often, he is identifying himself in distinction from others. Anochi means “I” in a specific sense and in distinction from anyone else. A few examples will illustrate one manner in which the Torah employs the word anochi:

• Hashem asked Kayin where his brother Hevel was. Kayin responded “Am I my brother’s guardian?” Kayin was responding that Hevel’s welfare was not his responsibility. He was saying, “Why ask me?” In this context the Torah uses the word anochi. Kayin was protesting his appointment as Hevel’s guardian. He was protesting, “Why me more than someone else?”

• Sarah gave her servant Hagar to Avraham as a wife. Hagar conceived and began to act towards Sarah with condescension. Sarah protested to Avraham. She said, “I placed my servant at your chest. She saw that she had conceived and I became inconsequential in her eyes.” Sarah was emphasizing the unjust irony of her situation. She was the one – no one else – who gave Hagar to Avraham and now, she was suffering from Hagar’s attitude of superiority. Again, in this context the term anochi is appropriate.

• Yaakov appeared before his father Yitzcahak disguised as his brother Esav. Yitzchak asked him to identify himself. He responded “I am Esav your first born.” His was telling his father that he is the real Esav. In other words he was saying, “I – and I alone – am Esav. Again, the appropriate term is employed – anochi.

In the first statement of the Decalogue, Hashem says, “I –Anochi – am Hashem your G-d Who brought you out of Egypt. The use of the word anochi indicates that Hashem is saying, “I Who speaks to you now at Sinai am the same G-d that appeared to you at the Reed Sea.” Hashem is telling the nation that the G-d of Sinai is the self-same G-d that annihilated the Egyptians. Now, the Midrash’s understanding of the passage is easily grasped. Hashem is telling the people that one G-d redeemed them from Egypt and now is delivering to them the gift of Torah. This statement must have been necessitated by the nation’s confusion stemming from their varied perceptions of Hashem. Hashem responds that He is One even though He is perceived differently in different situations.[3]

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 20:2.

[2] Maimonides explains in his Sefer HaMitzvot that this passage is one of the 613 commandments of the Torah. He describes the commandment as recognition of Hashem as Cause of all existence. Others disagree and do not regard this statement as a commandment. Nachmanides, in his glosses to Sefer HaMitzvot, explains that those who dispute Maimonides’ position, regard the statement as introductory to the commandments. Hashem introduces Himself to the nation. Once the nation accepts Him as Sovereign, then He will legislate the commandments. This dispute between Maimonides and his opponents can be readily understood based upon the above discussion. Maimonides opponents regard the statement as a rational or the basis for a moral imperative to serve Hashem. We must serve Him because He saved us. Maimonides disagrees. He regards the statement as an intellectual lesson. Hashem is providing the nation with the most profound understanding of the universe that humanity can achieve. Hashem is its Cause. He gives the universe its existence every moment. Maimonides regards the acknowledgement of Hashem’s relationship with the universe and His centrality to its existence as a commandment. It is not a preamble to commandments or a rational for them. Instead, the statement is a profound and fundamental teaching that shapes the Jew’s perceptions of the universe that surrounds him.

Of course, Maimonides’ position seems suspect. Why did Hashem not describe Himself as Creator? Why did He refer to Himself as the Redeemer of the nation if His intent was to impart the profound understanding of Hashem and the universe that Maimonides attributes to this statement? Nachamanides actually addresses this issue in his commentary on the Torah at the end of Parshat Bo. He explains that the redemption of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt through unprecedented miracles that contravened the laws of nature and the natural order demonstrated Hashem’s omnipotence and sovereignty over the universe. This omnipotence can only be attributed to the Creator. In other words, it was impossible for the generation that stood at Sinai to have first-hand knowledge of creation – an event in antiquity. However, the miracles of Egypt provided first-hand proof – proof the generation witnessed – that Hashem was Creator. (Shemot 13:16).

[3] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded Lecture on Aseret HaDibrot, part 1, 1969.

Relief for the Jewish Community of Houston - Donate Now