A. 1. Why does Maimonides place this first? What does it mean? Is it indeed a mitzvah or just a statement?
(Maimonides says it means we are commanded to believe in God - a Supreme Cause who is the creator of everything, an all-transcendent Reality. Without this belief in God’s sovereignty, understanding Torah and being obedient to its direction would not be possible.
Another way of saying that is to understand this first statement of the Decalogue, “I am your God” as a statement of sovereignty, in which we are commanded to seek and serve God. It further invites us to want to know and seek to know more about God (though there are limits to our knowledge), to enhance our belief and our relationship. We learned a great deal in our Torah study as we followed Moses in his curiosity to glean greater understanding from “I am” or, put another way, “I will be what I will be.”)
2. Must it entail our faith that God controls all, is the cause of all, is all powerful, or is it being bound to this One God, our Creator, alone in service and duty, or both?
(Tradition says yes to both, unequivocally. Though the sages debate whether this first statement is actually a command or simply a statement of fact to be known as an introduction to the mitzvoth, they use certain words pretty universally - all powerful, all controlling, all ability, all greatness, all strength and splendor and glory and blessing and endurance, etc. Is this just a distinct and necessary way of separating from the ancient tug of polytheism, that we are to see no other force or being or object as controlling, powerful, or…god?
Is it possible to put it in different terms: whatever our views on all the alls, can it be that we are to commit to this God as our God alone? Period. Or does our notion of God require having faith or belief in all of the alls, including all-powerful, all-controlling, all-creating?
For me, it doesn’t. For instance, God gives human beings the choice to choose life or death. In that sense, God is not all controlling. I’m not a Manichean; I simply don’t think this mitzvah requires all the alls. As with the young Jacob, I serve this transcendent God alone, with my best and growing knowledge of, and faith in, Divine greatness, as my sovereign, irrespective of the ultimate resolution of each and all of the alls.)
3. What is significant about God beyond being God in this mitzvah?
(God is the redeemer of the people and my redeemer! What does that mean?
I believe that it is intended to say that God saves me from servitude to any earthly or material form of life, that God gives me life and hope and direction, that I serve and am devoted to this God of revelation and redemption, Who has saved me for a purpose that I must fulfill in my life. This clause of the first commandment is what gives it its power and definition.
This redemption is not by chance; nor is it my doing; nor is it the doing of an earthly force; nor should I see any such redemption from any sort of Egypt as caused by anyone other than God.
Vitally, this redemption has the further purposes both of
bringing us into service of God through the revelation and, crucially, as the
redeemed stranger, to love the stranger on our own path and always seek his/her
Why is this second, and what’s its significance? What does it mean that God is one, and why is this important?
(As suggested above and will be repeated often, we believe in the unity of God. God is God alone. By being yoked to the One, we, as Rambam says, take on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not to created things, fragments such as the Greek gods, or modern forces such as fame or fortune to which we bow down and hold in reverence, devotion, and ultimately in indivisibility. It is God alone.
This unity further is the basis of our humanitarianism in that there being one God in heaven means all people are equally His children and they must respect each other as such. While there are many of us, there is a Single Source of universal truth, justice, and compassion. Comforted that there is Foundation for the good, we are mindful of the One God’s instruction and ready and obedient to do it.
We literally hear of the Oneness, and then are to understand it,
submit to it, and regularly repeat it, reinforcing it in one’s
heart (in the Shema). Accept, know, believe.)
A. What is this love, how does it develop, and what are its effects?
(Sages teach it’s a spiritual delight that develops out of being aware of and appreciative of God’s benevolence and wisdom. It’s a bliss that results further from reflecting on the gift of the mitzvoth, God’s wonders, blessings, grace, and love for us. The more the focus on this, the more sublime, the greater the love. And it is the purpose of this mitzvah to drive us as close as possible to devoting “all” to the love. Beyond the mind and the knowledge, this love should come to dwell in one’s heart, involve one’s whole soul, and draw upon all one’s resources.
The net effect: we are to serve God out of love; we are to arouse others to love and serve God; we are to live in a manner that God will be loved by others through our lives. In other words, out of love (not just duty or fear), and this great-as-possible and growing abundance of love, we serve God best and most fully. As we will discern in later mitzvoth, this love then grows through that service, through our devotion, commitment, and faithfulness, in helping God re-create wholeness in the creation.)
B. What do we exactly mean by the love we see here?
(When we love another, we seek principally to be united with the finest features of our beloved, which we admire and may share. The best qualities of the soul of a lover, it is said, actually yearn for such qualities in the soul of the beloved. We are transformed by our union and are closely knitted in our hearts.
Our sages say that one who loves another will not rest unless he exerts himself in matters pertaining to his beloved and that the exertion is sweeter than the rest. Further, if one acts in a manner displeasing to his beloved, he will be confounded and ashamed unless and until they are reconciled.
In our case, we admire wisdom, justice, and mercy, and so we seek out and love the One in Whom such attributes are fundamentally rooted. Also, we yearn for God out of our human quest for the eternal which only God represents and can guarantee.)
C. Why is this love so very important?
(This great love puts us maximally into spiritual space, with God and God’s interests, thus weakening our attachment to worldly demands that don’t have divine purpose. The more we begin to love God, the more possessed we become by that love, and the more possessed by God we become. And the greater our love becomes, the closer we come to God.
So, this mitzvah is important, and one we confront early in the
order, in that it pushes us continually to grow our love of God and cultivate
it to be a sort of default state, one of preoccupation, one in which the rest
of the mitzvoth find us in the most receptive state.)
We moderns don’t like to read these words. It suits us a little better to consider the direction to be in awe of God. The sages say it’s both: fear, as in fear of punishment, and awe of God’s exaltedness. With both, what’s its most important message to us?
(We are not to be at ease and self-confident or negligent about living true to God’s expectations. We must be aware and believe there are negative consequences for straying from them. We should, as we just discussed, be principally motivated by love, but we also serve with this knowledge of consequences as well, as any lover does and must. In fact, there are now two barriers to straying: the violation of the mitzvah out of fear of God’s punishment and then the consequences for violating the substantive mitzvah itself.
This clearly entails a confidence that God watches us and holds us to account.
We learned in our study of blessings and curses in Vayikra of the reality of the aloneness of life without God. Whether it’s lack of joy, boredom, a sense of living death, yes, punishment, there are consequences to living outside of Divine Presence. When we act in a manner we know is displeasing to God, we know God knows, and we are ashamed and confounded. We learn to return or endure the consequences.
This mitzvah teaches us to be aware of this - God’s
knowing, our shame, and the consequence and pain of straying - as well as
developing the urge to, and knowledge of how, to return to God’s
way. One could say all this is inherent in love, but that it’s
separately commanded surely teaches us it’s a powerful, disciplined,
rather than soft and easy, love that we are to develop and show God. Love and
fear together intensify the commitment.)
Literally, we are to serve God. What does that mean? Why is it important?
(It tends to mean prayer, with devotion, from and with the heart. What do we do when we pray?
We arouse our conscience and focus our thought and words on truths. We concentrate, recognizing we are praying to God. We act in a respectful manner. We reflect on God as Master, Who is good and Who extends good to us. We sense God watches us and is with us. This makes us mindful of our duty. We praise God. We express gratitude. It also gives us the occasion to cry out to God, which occasions God’s response. All of this furthers the other mitzvoth of belief, love, fear/awe, and indeed the rest. The mitzvah, seen as prayer, is vital.
Yet, it also means study, especially of the mitzvoth. More generally, it also means certainly the doing of them. But Maimonides describes it as a duty to worship God. Why would we like that?
First, avodah, the root of the word in the text can mean worship. But, more fundamentally, isn’t so that we worship God in all these forms of service?
Regular worship of God involves both a constant turning toward
God and a living in service of God. This helps build relationship with God in
so many ways, perhaps none as important in our tradition that God is near to
all who call Him, if they call Him in truth, and turn to Him.)
What does it mean that we must cleave to God?
(A. Interestingly, many sages say it means to be near and study from people wise in the ways of God. Why would that be so?
It helps us get close to God, to know God and God’s ways better, and better live with God. This is also manifest in the people with whom we choose to associate, as to goodness, Godliness, etc., and now in the “real” and the “virtual” worlds.
B. Some say it means to marry a wise person’s child. I surely did that - the child of two wise persons!
C. While some caution against taking this too literally since the Divine is often considered a “consuming fire,” we can think of other ways of being that would add meaning, such as: in prayer, in study of God’s word, in loving others, in living by the mitzvoth, in seeking to draw near with offerings, in both sacred and secular time, in seeking holiness, in use of time.
One nice thought is to seek to be in touch with one’s
soul, which always itself seeks its Source.
What does it mean to walk in God’s ways?
(Generally, it means to emulate God in the ways of the attributes we’ve been shown, including mercy, graciousness, righteousness, loving kindness. We recall being taught that we are created in God’s image, that we are to be holy as God is holy. We are to make our ways be like God’s ways, as in clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, etc.
Can you think of specific examples of conditions you see in your world where, based on these attributes, God would expect us, in the Divine image, to act?
Insisting poor children be well educated, being helpful to a lonely person on the street, taking a moment to help a friend in need of support, etc.)
What does it mean to sanctify God’s name?(Rambam says principally it means to proclaim our belief and faith in God without fear or constraint.
We also do it when we live in a Godly manner by being scrupulous in behavior, showing concern for others, bringing cheer where we can, being honorable, being faithful in dealings, studying, praising and seeking to emulate God, etc. Living as God expects is as if reflected in a mirror for others (and God) to see. In doing these things, we sanctify God’s name, for we were created principally to serve God.
We refrain from doing things odious to God. While we won’t
get into it today, I would point out that Jewish tradition suggests that even
on pain of death a demand to be actually idolatrous, to murder, or to engage in
certain illicit relations must be
resisted. This was deemed to act in the world in a way that sanctifies God’s