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Who’s Speaking, Please?

Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

February 11, 2009 | 6:36 pm

“I am Adonai your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves” (Exodus 20:2).

Jews alone consider this verse the first of the Ten Commandments. (Catholics and Protestants each have their own enumerations, inclusive of what Jews consider to be the remaining nine.) Our sages struggled with this first of the aseret hadevarim (literally, 10 sayings; Exodus 34:28). One camp considered the verse a preamble with no specific actionable commandment attached, but a second school of thought insisted that this first of the “big ten” is indeed a mitzvah. Maimonides listed it as the first “Thou Shalt” in his Sefer Hamitzvot.

Whether or not they count “I am Adonai” as a commandment, rabbis have always agreed that this verse is extraordinarily important. Other verses, including the final eight of the Ten Commandments, were delivered through Moses. Only the first two statements of aseret hadevarim — about the true God and against the worship of false gods — are understood to be spoken directly to the entire people mipi hagevurah, from the Almighty’s own mouth (Talmud Makot 24a). What is being communicated in these awesome yet familiar words?

For many commentators, “I am Adonai” establishes authority. The other commandments follow from this one because of who God has been for us and what we owe to God. The Hebrew word for “I” in this verse is Anochi, an august term used by God in describing the Divine Self in covenantal relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 26:24, 46:3; Exodus 6:2). The equivalent of Anochi is used in ancient near eastern treaties to refer to royalty.

Anochi stands in contrast to Ani, the other Hebrew term for “I.” Rabbi Elie Munk described the difference poetically: “[Ani] presupposes the presence of an interlocutor; I does not exist without you. By contrast, Anochi ... designates Absolute Being, whose existence is indisputable and independent of any contingencies.”

But establishing God’s authority is not the only thing, or necessarily the main thing, to be gleaned. I read this verse as a statement — even a commandment — of relationship. There are two partners in this verse: Anochi and the second-person singular. I am the impressive, royal, authoritative author of the covenant, Adonai, who took you, the individual slave, out of Egypt. It is as if God is saying to each Jew: “We have experienced something precious that connects us forever. Based on that experience, I can spell out — and you can well understand — what is and is not acceptable. Although you are subject to temptation, you now know — experientially, deeply know — the right and the good.”

After all the miracles of the Exodus, who could doubt Divinity or dishonor God’s name? After escaping slavery, who would work seven days a week and neglect a day of rest? After risking death to worship God, who would fail to remember Shabbat? Having learned to distinguish between legitimate/divine and illegitimate/idolatrous authority, it becomes easier to honor your parents as partners with God in giving you life. After suffering from Pharaoh’s disrespect for life and freedom, it is anathema to murder or kidnap. Seeing his wanton disregard for reproductive and property rights — not to mention his disdain for the truth and his own word — who would have the stomach to commit adultery, steal or testify falsely? Knowing now the sweet taste of freedom, what is there to covet?

The Anochi verse makes a statement not only in preparation for the commandments that follow, but in itself. This Anochi God acts in history. This Anochi God loves freedom and redeems the oppressed.

The phrasing is nevertheless curious. Why would a people so recently freed need to be reminded that they were taken out of Egypt and out of the house of slaves? One traditional answer is that Anochi took you (singular) out of the land of Egypt (the place of your physical enslavement) and out of the house of bondage (your spiritual and emotional enslavement).

The title of this essay was meant to raise a serious question with a humorous tone. But in the end, as deep and serious an inquiry as it is, “Who is speaking?” is not the ultimate question that we grapple with as Jews. The final question, the burning question that the Ten Commandments face us with, is “who is listening?”

Are we idolaters or faithful members of the covenant? Are we survivors of Egypt with a slave mentality or are our minds free — really free — to hear from God? Do we take for granted the divine goodness in our lives, or are we genuinely grateful for it?

Do we, in imitation and in the image of God, love freedom, redeem the oppressed, liberate ourselves and others spiritually, as well as physically? Do we understand that we, too, act in history with lasting and sometimes miraculous effects? The nine commandments that follow drive home the point that our response to Anochi can change everything.

The tradition teaches that each of the Ten Commandments corresponds to one of the statements by which God created the world. “I am Adonai” is matched to “Let there be light.” Anochi — the verse and the One — illuminates our way.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Tarzana (www.makom.org); editor of the Lifecycles books series (Jewish Lights), and a frequent scholar-in-residence. She is online at www.rabbidebra.com.

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