<i>Vaetchanan</i>: A Universal G-d

Two of the most famous passages in the entire Bible referring to G-d are: "I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage," the first of the Ten Commandments, and "Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is one," the opening verse of the <i>Shema</i>, the watchword of our faith.

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Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

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Two of the most famous passages in the entire Bible that refer to G-d are to be found in this week's Biblical portion: "I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage," the first of the Ten Commandments, and "Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is one," the opening verse of the Shema, the watchword of our faith. Neither of these verses express a frontal commandment to believe in G-d, and nor is there any such verse of commandment to believe anywhere in the Bible. Why not, and what is the significance of what these particular verses do teach us about G-d?

I believe that the Bible neglects to specifically command Divine belief because belief in G-d alone is not what really matters; witness all of the fanatical wars fought in name of G-d, and how Islamic fundamentalists brainwash and train their youth to blow themselves up together with innocent citizens in the name of a god of Jihad. What good is "pure monotheism" if Allah has been transformed into Satan?

Notwithstanding whatever has been written heretofore, the great philosopher-legalist Maimonides (1135-1204) does derive a commandment to believe in G-d from the first of the Ten Commandments, "I am the Lord your G-d who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage." He begins his magnum Mishneh Torah with the laws of the (Theological) "Foundations of the Torah" (1, 1-6): ?The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a First Cause who produced everything that exists.... This cause is the Lord of the world and the master over the entire earth... to know this (fundamental fact) is a positive commandment, as it is written, 'I am the Lord your G-d' (Exodus 20:1, Deut 5:6)."

Apparently, Maimonides is taking this verse to be read, "I am (to be accepted by you as) your Lord...." And Maimonides utilizes this very foundation-stone of our Jewish faith to emphasize the universalist component of Judaism. Since everything and everyone in the universe was created by the one G-d, the First Cause Creator who is responsible for every creation, this great sage concludes the Mishneh Torah with a picture of universal harmony and peace under G-d:
And that which is written in Isaiah (concerning the 'end of the days') how 'The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the lion will graze with the kid.' (Isaiah 11:6) is merely an allegory and analogy. The substantive meaning of this is that Israel will dwell peacefully with the (heretofore) wicked nations of the world... and everyone will return to the true religion. There will be no looting and no destruction, but humanity will eat only that which is permissible in harmony as do the Israelites.... ("Laws of Kings" 12, 1)
Maimonides' universalistic world view - based on the one G-d of all humanity - is perhaps given clearest expression when he exhorts the Israelites to treat their Gentile slaves with special consideration and concern:
The Israelite must be a compassionate human being who pursues righteousness and neither lays a heavy yoke upon his servant nor causes him pain; he rather gives him to eat and to drink from whatever food and drink is in the household.... and speaks to him with kindness. He must listen to (his servant's) complaints, as it is written in Job, "If I despise the fair judgments of my servants in their arguments with me, what will I do when the Almighty will rise up (against me); what will I respond? Is it not the same innards that made me which also made them, and were we all not prepared by the same womb?" (Job 31: 13-15) ("Laws of Servants", end of ninth chapter)
What is strange is why Maimonides derives belief in a universal G-d of humanity from a verse that seems so very particularistic, which specifies how G-d took His chosen Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (1080-1145), the author of the famous philosophical treatise Kuzari, derives from this very verse the unique relationship between G-d and Israel, and the qualitatively different and exalted position Israel enjoys within the world (Kuzari 1, 11 and 25).

I would argue that Maimonides chose this verse for two reasons: firstly, because it precedes the negative commandment against idolatry, "You shall have no other gods before Me," so that it is only logical that this first commandment deals with the positive command to accept G-d; secondly, because Maimonides truly believes that the exodus from Egypt also provides a universal teaching. The great philosopher may well have taken his cue from the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, the Sabbath commandment, which was given both as a remembrance of the creation of the world (Exodus 20) as well as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5).

What links these two phenomena - the creation and the exodus? The exodus is the corollary of the creation. If indeed G-d created every human in His Divine image, then every human being must be free and no other human being dare violate another's person or property. The Divine creation of humanity set the stage for human freedom and human inviolability, the Divine creation necessitated the destruction of "Pharaohnic" totalitarianism and despotism as well as the formulation of a universal code of morality: thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery.

No wonder Maimonides insists that everyone must accept - even by coercion, if necessary - the seven Noahide laws of morality (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Kings" 8, 10), and defines the Messianic Age as a period in which the entire world will live in peace and harmony. No wonder major commentaries like the Ramban and Ibn Ezra see the exodus as having established G-d as the only ruler of the universe - as He demonstrated by deposing Pharaoh, the prototypical despot - and thereby claiming His right to legislate morality for all. No wonder the Bible, in its prelude to the Decalogue, assigns the Israelites the task of being a "kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), which is defined by S'forno to mean "to teach the entire human species to all call out in the name of G-d and to serve Him shoulder to shoulder... since 'from Zion shall come forth the Torah (to the world).'" (ad loc) And no wonder the second version of the Decalogue, in Deuteronomy, when it presents the exodus as the reason for the Sabbath, explains that the purpose of this second day "is in order for your Gentile man- and maidservant to rest like you." (Deut 5:14)

This likewise explains the connection in our Biblical portion between the Decalogue and the Shema. There is no more universal expression of our faith than "Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is One," which means, as explained by Rashi, that although the G-d of love (HaShem) and morality (Elohim) is now only accepted by us, ultimately He will be accepted by everyone in the world, by the whole of humanity, which He created as one.

Even more: the numerical equivalent of ehad (one) is 13, the numerical equivalent of ahavah (love) is 13; our G-d who is One is love. And since the numerical equivalent of Y-H-V-H (the Ineffable Name) is 26, Y-H-V-H is the One G-d Love. Moreover, there is no greater expression of G-d's love than His having freed the Hebrew slaves from totalitarian domination. Hence, part of our twice-daily obligation to recite the Shema includes our mention of the Exodus from Egypt.




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