Let’s Talk a Bit About Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Yitro records the events of Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, including the Aseret HaDibberot (which should properly be known as the Ten Sayings, Pronouncements, Utterances or some such, since dibberot does not mean commandments). For all that I usually try to spread my choice of comments throughout the parsha, I got caught up in the first few Dibberot, since they expand our understanding of Ramban’s view of faith and its role in our Judaism, a topic I find both endlessly fascinating and of particular importance in this generation, when even highly observant Jews are unaware of some of these commandments [but my letting it take up all the room this time means I will strive in coming weeks and months to look away from such issues].

What Obligates Us to Serve Hashem

The Dibberot open (20;2-3) with Hashem reminding the Jewish people that He took them out of Egypt, freed them from slavery. Ramban argues that that was to remind the Jews they owed Him their service, since Hashem freed them from the yoke of their previous master, Par’oh. He cites a Mechilta as support, although it’s slightly different in a way I find revealing.

Mechilta says “Anochi Hashem Elokecha” preceded the prohibition of other gods because there’s no point in a king making laws until a nation has accepted that monarch’s rule. Hashem therefore first reminds the people, “didn’t you accept My kingship in Egypt [I think this means that was how they merited leaving, by offering the Pesach sacrifice]? Once they agreed, talk could move on to the wrong in worship of other powers.

The minimal reading of Mechilta is that it explains Anochi’s being the first words and that the Dibberot start with Egypt as a way to remind the Jews they had already rendered obeisance to Hashem. Ramban (knowingly, I assume) took it a step further, that the verse is telling us that what Hashem did for the Jews in Egypt obligates them (and us) throughout history.

I like Ramban’s explanation better (he cites the Mechilta as if it meant what he said, but as I’ve pointed out, he seems to add an element), because it explains why Hashem opened with Egypt rather than Creation—the fact that Hashem made the world, set up the laws of physics, itself means we’d have to do what Hashem says. Mechilta might say our acceptance means that even within the parameters of freewill we’ve agreed to be Hashem’s people, but I still would have thought Creation was enough for Hashem to tell us what we have to do to do well in His world.

Ramban’s point, I think, is that Hashem was showing why they (and we) should feel a personal moral debt to Hashem, stemming from a kindness that applies to each of us throughout history. Sure, if we did not follow the Torah, natural consequences would bedevil us (as we saw last time); but Hashem wants us to realize we should feel obligated to serve, not just submit to His force majeure. As part of that, Ramban notes that these Dibberot are phrased in the singular, addressed to each individual Jew, male or female, because each of us should undertake mitzvot as a matter of the personal relationship initiated by the One Who took each of us out of Egypt.

The Definition of Idolatry

The Dibberot say lo yihyeh lecha elohim acherim, you must not “have” another god. Ramban says “having” a god means to subscribe to, to believe in, to accept any power as independently powerful in one’s life. That’s how to read Ya’akov’s words in Bereshit 28;21, when he said that should he return safely from Lavan’s house, Hashem would be his Gd, that he (and we, by virtue of this dibbur) would not turn to any elim, angels or heavenly bodies. That includes not believing in them, not accepting them as a power, not saying to any one of them “you are my Power.”

Ramban offers a good opportunity to remember that avodah zarah, worshipping other gods, is not always about conscious worship or religious activity. The definition ofavodah zarah (and why ‘idolatry’ is such an unfortunate translation) includes the case of a Jew who comes to believe that some other force or being has independent power over his/her life.

This stress matters particularly in the context of Ramban, who himself believes that Hashem in some way delegates some running of the world to other forces (as we’ve seen previously). It’s precisely because he does ascribe some power to those forces that his expansive view of the prohibition brings us up short—however Hashem works them, we may not acknowledge them as any kind of meaningful power, because they are not in any way independent of Hashem.

[To me, this should affect how we speak. When we say that gravity means we’ll fall to the ground if we step off a ledge, it can start us down the path of thinking that natural events must occur. We have to always remember that what we mean by gravity and all other regularities of the world is that Hashem made this the way the world operates in general, even almost universally, and that we are supposed to expect those regularities to continue in just about all cases. But we also must remember that any of that can go differently at any time. A Jew who, Gd forbid, falls off a tall tower, mountain, or into a gorge, is almost definitely going to die; but on the way down, that Jew ideally would realize that the issue isn’t gravity, it’s whether s/he will merit Hashem’s interrupting the regular workings of the world to save him/her].

It can be a delicate semantic point, but an important one. Avodah zarah means much more than bowing to idols or rain dances to spirits.

Hashem is Strict and Jealous in a Narrower Band Than We Think

The verse specifies bowing to or worshipping other powers, then adds that a reason to stay away from that is that Hashem is a E-l kana, a jealous (or zealous) Gd, visits the sins of the fathers on second, third, and fourth generations. Conversely, Hashem does kindnesses for thousands, for those who love Hashem and fulfill His mitzvot.

The simplest reading of this verse seems to me to be that Hashem generally punishes and rewards far into the future. Stay away from wrongful worships, we are being warned, since that will hurt our coming generations, as do all our sins, but this is a particularly serious one.

(That’s clearly only for those descendants that continue that path. Ramban adds that it stops at ribe’im, a fourth generation, because there’s no meaningful connection beyond that. He implies that it was that connection that is why Hashem punishes that far down– since the great-grandfather’s evil mattered to this current sinner, the ancestor’s sin still is part of the problem. Beyond that, there’s too  little impact of the earlier sinner to consider it relevant to this one).

Ramban reads the verse interestingly more restrictively. He says it’s only for this one terrible transgression that Hashem visits the sins of the forefathers on those of their descendants who follow their ways; in all other matters, each person is punished for his/her own sins (so that if a great-grandfather starts eating pork, and the family continues that practice, knowing it violates the Torah, they would still only be punished for their own sins).

How Easy It Is To Be Considered One Who Loves Hashem

Perhaps Ramban’s way is more intuitive than I’ve suggested, since he limits the areas where we might bear the burden of forebears we could not control (for all that a later generation sins, s/he would likely be upset to know that s/he is being punished more than a friend who commits that exact same sin, just because s/he was stuck with a grandparent who did the same). But then he applies his focus on how we relate to powers other than Hashem to the next verse as well, in a way that I think is surprisingly lenient: for him, to qualify as ohavai, as those who love Hashem, ordinary mitzvot are not the issue.

Rather, one must be moser nefesh for Hashem, insist that Hashem is the only Power that runs the world, and deny/reject all other powers. More than just insisting, the person would have to do that at risk of death, in line with a traditional reading of the verse in Shema, that to love Hashem with all our souls means even were we required to forfeit those souls.

It’s possible Ramban thinks we do not become ohavei Hashem unless and until we’re faced with that significant challenge, but that would make the verse a bit of a tease—remember that Hashem rewards those who serve Him well, since He continues to perform kindnesses for generations of descendants of those who give their lives to avoid accepting some other god.

I prefer to think he means that if we cultivate that strong a sense of connection, if we build our insistence that no other power than Hashem runs any part of the world, such that we would firmly intend to assert even at the cost of our lives, that we can qualify as ohavei Hashem.

Because if that’s true, the entry fee to the club is lower than we thought. To reach that august level that Hashem calls us ohavav, we could have imagined that we would need to excel at all or most of the multiplicity of ways Hashem demands we serve—all the intricacies of the many areas of halachah as well as of character and belief.

For Ramban, all it takes is inculcating in ourselves the basic truth that our forefather Avraham taught us: there is one Gd, Who runs the whole world, is the only Power to Whom we need to (or may) relate in building our most successful human lives.

Parents as Representatives of Hashem

Kiddushin 30b notes that Scripture refers to the kavod of parentsthe acts of filial piety we owe them, in similar terms to that which we owe Hashem. Ramban uses that to explain why verse twelve, that command, is the first dibbur following the ones about Hashem and not serving other powers. For their children, parents are to be treated as creators, Hashem’s partners.

He then takes it a remarkable step further; while the Talmud lays out the basic requirement as being to perform certain acts of service [providing food and drink, helping them dress, helping them get around], Ramban suggests it’s the same kavod we owe Hashem. That means, first, that we admit this person is our parent, and that we serve this person for no other reason than the bare fact of being our parent. Much as we are supposed to serve Hashem without thought of reward, and just because Hashem is Hashem, Ramban thinks we must not serve our parents for the sake of an anticipated inheritance or for any other ulterior motive.

He doesn’t mean that to the exclusion of what the Gemara said, he says, he means that that needs to be our underlying attitude in all we do for these parents. So that as we do what the Gemara said—help those parents when they need it, and more—the kavod is that we do it as recognition that this person is our creator, a partner with Hashem and therefore deserving of something of the service we owe Hashem.

There’s more to the Aseret HaDibberot than telling us how to Hashem, but that’s already a significant part of those Dibberot for Ramban, since at least four of the ten turn on that question, how and where we should see Hashem in our lives, and what it will do for us when we do.

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