By Daniel Pinner
“I am Hashem your G-d, that I took you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 20:2).
This is the first of the Ten Utterances. (As an aside: the usual term, “Ten Commandments,” is inaccurate. The Torah [Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4] calls them Asseret ha-D’varim, meaning the “Ten Utterances” or the “Ten Statements”.) This was the climax of the universe, the moment that had been pre-ordained since Creation. This was the moment when “no bird sang, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, the angels did not ascend, the fiery angels did not proclaim ‘Holy, Holy,’ the sea did not churn, the creatures did not speak; but the entire world was silent and dumb” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9).
2,448 years earlier, G-d had completed the creation of the physical universe: as the Torah (Genesis 1:31) describes it, va-yehi erev va-yehi boker, yom ha-shishi (“and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day”). Reish Lakish – one of the great sages of the Talmud – noted that this wording is subtly different from the other days of Creation: the other days are described as yom sheni (“a second day”), yom shlishi (“a third day”), and so on; only the sixth day is yom ha-shishi (“the sixth day”). Explains Reish Lakish: “This extra letter heh teaches that G-d made all the works of Creation conditional. He told them: If Israel accept the Torah – you will continue to exist; and if not – then I will return you all to tohu va-vohu, to primordial chaos and non-existence” (Shabbat 88a).
Israel’s acceptance of the Torah was the purpose for which the world had been created: the first word of the Torah, bereishit, usually translated as “in the beginning”, connotes bishvil reishit (“for the sake of the beginning”): the world was created “for the sake of the Torah which is called ‘the reishit (“beginning”) of His way’ (Proverbs 8:22), and for the sake of Israel which is called ‘the reishit of His harvest’ (Jeremiah 2:3)” (Rashi, Genesis 1:1; also Rashi on Sanhedrin 91b, s.v. From the six days of Creation).
But if G-d created the universe for the sake of Israel and the Torah, and specifically in order for Israel to accept the Torah, then why did He not begin the Ten Utterances by introducing Himself as “I am Hashem your G-d, Who created the heavens and the earth”? This would seem to be more appropriate, as well as being a more impressive achievement than bringing us out of Egypt.
The Ohr ha-Chayyim ha-Kadosh (Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) provides an answer, when he comments on the words that G-d commanded Moshe to relay to the Jews: “You saw what I did to Egypt” (Exodus 19:4): “Why did G-d say ‘you saw what I did to Egypt,’ rather than ‘you saw that I brought you out of Egypt’? This would have obligated [Israel] with a far greater obligation and deeper servitude, for all the benefits that G-d bestowed upon them. Had His intention been to remind them of His miracles, these would have been included in the phrase ‘that I brought you out of Egypt’…. G-d intended two things in saying this: the aspect of love, and the aspect of fear. The aspect of fear, by His mentioning ‘what I did to Egypt’ – implying how I chastised them with My vengeance…until they obeyed My command to send you out; let this then be your sign not to transgress My commands, lest you incur My wrath…. And He also thereby showed us the aspect of love and affection, because everything that He did – throwing all Creation into upheaval, annihilating an entire nation – He did for us”.
So now, a few days later, addressing the entire nation, G-d began with the words “I am Hashem your G-d, that I took you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”. This emphasizes the unique connection between Him and Israel as a whole, and the very personal connection between Him and each individual Jew. Had G-d introduced Himself here as the Creator of heaven and earth, then He would have implied no greater connection with Israel than with any other nation: after all, He created the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Hittites as much as He created Israel. But by stating “that I took you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves,” He emphasized the intimate relationship between Himself and Israel.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) points out that the word hotzeitikha (“I brought you out”) occurs only three times throughout the Tanach: here in the First Utterance, which is repeated verbatim in Deuteronomy 5:6; and when
G-d told Abraham, “I am Hashem, that I brought you out from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this Land to inherit it” (Genesis 15:7). In the words of the Ba’al ha-Turim: “Because He brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees to give his descendants the Torah”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim seems to contradict the simple words of the Torah: G-d says that He brought Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to give him the Land; the Ba’al ha-Turim says that He brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees to give his descendants the Torah. So which was it – the Land or the Torah?
In fact, the Ba’al ha-Turim is teaching us, once again, the intimate connection between the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel: the one depends upon the other. Just as it is impossible to keep the Torah properly outside of Israel, so too is it impossible for us to inherit the Land of Israel without the Torah. As the Midrash expresses it: “Let Israel, who are called [G-d’s] possession, come to the Land which is called His possession, there to build the Holy Temple which is called His possession, in the merit of the Torah, which is called His possession…Let Israel, who are called [G-d’s] heritage, come to the Land which is called His heritage, there to build the Holy Temple which is called His heritage, in the merit of the Torah, which is called His heritage” (Yalkut Shimoni, Beshallach 252-253).
Lest anybody consider this a nice Midrashic concept with no practical application, we must point out that this is actually practical halachah: “It was through the covenant of circumcision that the Land was given to Abraham in the section dealing with the Brit Milah, as He said: ‘And I will give you, and your seed after you, this Land of your dwellings’ (Genesis 17:8). And in the merit of the Torah and the Mitzvot they will inherit the Land, as it says: ‘…in order that you may live and multiply, and you will come and inherit the Land’ (Deuteronomy 8:1); and it also says: ‘And He gave them the lands of the nations…in order that they would keep His laws and guard His Torah’ (Psalms 105:44-45)” (Mishnah Berurah 187:7).
All this is implied in the nine Hebrew words, “I am Hashem your G-d, that I took you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”. His taking us out from Egypt demonstrated His mastery over nature, His love for us, our obligation to worship and obey and love and fear Him. His choosing of Abraham and his descendants as His own nation tied us irrevocably, for all time, to His Land and His Torah. Or, in the words of the Midrash, “I am Hashem your G-d – and it was for this sake that I took you out from the land of Egypt, that you will accept My divinity upon yourself” (Exodus Rabbah 29:3).