The First Commandment

by Madeline Black (Sarasota, FL)

“I am the Eternal God.”

This sentence is the well known first of the Ten Commandments. However, according to basic rules of grammar, this sentence can not be a command. And yet, it is not only one of the Ten Commandments; it is the First Commandment.

While the following nine–such as, “You shall keep the Sabbath,” “Honor your father and mother,” and “Thou shall not kill”–are unarguably commands, this first commandment reads as more of an opening line. It sets the stage for the commandments that follow.

I believe that the purpose of the first commandment is for the Israelites to accept God as the Eternal One, who brought us out of the land of Egypt to be our God.

One Midrash interprets the first commandment to mean: “I am the Eternal, if I am your God.” In other words, God is able to bring about divine redemption only if Israel acknowledges God as being our God.

Upon learning this, I was reminded of a piece of information that I learned in a social studies class this year. I learned that a state can only be considered a state if it is universally acknowledged by other states. Well, does this same principle not apply to religion?

So, let us consider our religion to be a state of mind. By accepting the First Commandment to be true, we enter into that state of mind. Only in this state of mind are we able to fully adhere to the following nine commandments.

In a way, the First Commandment is God’s way of making sure that everybody clearly understands the responsibilities set by the commandments, as well as the consequences that come from not following them. The First Commandment is a reminder so that we do not forget that the commandments are something more than guidelines.

Let us not forget that the covenant between us and God has two sides to it. We are God’s chosen people as long as God is our only God. If we do not choose God, we are not his people. But what would happen if we had not accepted God as the Eternal?

The Quantum Theory explores the idea that matter and reality only exist when observed. For instance, does a spider in your bathroom exist if you do not see it? (Personally, I would prefer to think not.) But the bigger question is, if we did not believe in God, would God still exist? And without the belief in God, what are the Ten Commandments, if not only a set of meaningless, obsolete guidelines?

Although accepting God as our God was something we did as a people, I have come to learn that it is also something one must do on one’s own. In Hebrew school, as children, we are taught the Ten Commandments. We are taught the fundamentals of being Jewish. What is accepted, and what is not. However, it is not until later that one begins to question: Why must we celebrate Passover? Why must we keep the Sabbath?

I have learned this year from Rabbi Glickman that although we are given texts to read and passages to study, it is up to us to interpret them in a way that fits with our idea of being Jewish. This year, I have begun to understand that each person must also accept God as his or her God, and embrace the state of mind in order to be able to fully appreciate the mitzvah that is the Ten Commandments.

So, in reality, though the First Commandment is not a direct command, it is the most important commandment. The words “I am your God” are the words that direct these commandments to us, God’s chosen people. This commandment includes us all in a category of people who will follow the rest of the Ten Commandments.

God is our God, so we follow God’s commandments.

Madeline Black shared these thoughts about God and the Ten Commandments as part of her Confirmation this past Shabbat at Temple Emanu-el in Sarasota, FL. 


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

3 responses to “The First Commandment

  1. Laura

    Very astute and thoughtful remarks! I’m impressed, Madeline — and proud!

  2. This is a great piece! Prof. Dick Friedman also talks about how the first “commandment” parallels the language of treaties between tribes in the Ancient Near East. “I am your leader” is a natural statement preceding “these are the expectations of our tribe/community.” Thanks for sharing your words of Torah – I will think about them tomorrow morning when I hear the words of the Torah reading chanted here in Georgia. — Rabbi Pamela Gottfried

  3. Marilyn

    Hello Madeline, Congratulations on your confirmation and your quite deep thoughts on the first commandment. It appears that God is personal, national and universal. The only way we can know, isolate and identify who this real God is, from other gods or frauds, is through descriptive dialogue. All the way through the writings His communications about Himself are descriptive. i.e. I am the God who brought you out of Egypt, I am the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, I am the God of Israel. However it appears from our point of view He identifies Himself and we are identified or recognised by Him , (which is a personal relationship,) by our living within His instruction, just as though He is our father. What do you think?

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