What is God’s Role in Guiding Our Lives?

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What the first of the Ten Commandments lacks in an imperative, it makes up for with a strong hint of the role God plays in Jews' lives.

The Ten Commandments open with the statement: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” This is an odd way to begin
 
The Ten Commandments because it does not sound like a commandment. The other nine commandments begin with imperatives, for example: Remember the Sabbath; Honor your parents; You shall not commit adultery. However, the first commandment does not begin with an imperative. It simply makes a declaration about God’s role in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
 
Why do we consider this the first commandment? Let’s jump forward in Jewish history from the time of the Ten Commandments to the time of the sages, a span of over 1,000 years. Pirkei Avot, a compilation of maxims of the sages, begins with the statement: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” This statement, too, is not an imperative.  
 
It does not tell us how much bitter herb to eat at the Passover seder to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the liberation from slavery in Egypt. It does not define the measurable dimensions of a deed.
 
In later rabbinical literature, we learn that we are to eat an amount of bitter herb equivalent to the size of a large olive to remember that our ancestors’ lives were embittered by cruel bondage. But “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” is not a statement about quantity.  It is a statement about belief. It is a matter of faith to believe that Moses was divinely inspired at Mount Sinai to write down the Torah.
 
The first “commandment” does not tell us of a duty to perform or how to perform it.  It is a statement of implied authority: “Acknowledge that I am your God who freed you from a cruel tyrant, but you are not free to do anything you want to do. Here are my rules on how to live. Accept them.”  Thus the first “commandment” is a reminder of the two purposes in the liberation from Egyptian slavery. The first is embodied in the cry for freedom: “Let My people go”; the second one: “So that they may serve Me.”
 
The prophet Micah said:  “[God] has told you … what is good and what God asks of you: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jewish law was developed to guide us in how to perform just deeds; to tell us what acts to perform to prove we love mercy; to show us what it means to walk humbly with God. These rules were expressed in practicable terms: What? When? How? How often? How much?
 
Jewish law, however, can’t address the first part of Micah’s statement. “What does God ask of us” has to come out of our personal longing and quest for faith; it is the most important spiritual question we can ask of ourselves.
 
Exhortations to perform good deeds and to observe rituals should be uttered within the context of belief. The first “commandment” and Micah’s appeal are motivational statements. They do not provide any plan; they do not lay down any specifics; they do not describe any details for behavior.
 
They tell us that religious deeds cannot be performed in a spiritual vacuum. They are intended to inspire us to think about God’s role in Jewish history and in our lives and what our relationship with God requires of us.
 
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: RabbiFVD@aol.com.
 

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