The secret of the First Commandment

The secret of the First Commandment

This week we read the magnificent verses known in English as The Ten Commandments. Commandments two through ten are similar: do this, don’t do that. But the First Commandment is different. “I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Our rabbis understood that this command is the foundation of them all: a statement of belief in God. Only after one has made a firm commitment to the reality of God would one be ready to serve the Divine through observing the remainder of the commandments, and indeed, the entire Torah. Yet, if you want a statement making the best case for the existence of God, wouldn’t it be more persuasive to say, “I am the Creator of the universe?” After all, many people find a sense of transcendence by experiencing the wonders of the natural world. Why start with the Exodus from slavery, instead of the creation?

Our rabbis teach that we could look at a Creator of the universe as something vast and impersonal, too far away to touch us as individuals. But the image of God who frees us from slavery is a God that is personal. More than that: God wants us to underline the miracles in our lives and to cultivate our gratitude for all the wonders in our day. The miracle of freedom is the prime example of the many Divine blessings we experience, all of which lead us to gratitude.

This concept of focusing on our blessings and strengthening our sense of gratitude is the theme of the prayer called the Modim, which we say in every prayer service, three times a day. “We give thanks to You for all the miracles that are with us, morning, noon and night.” Judaism teaches us to become re-sensitized to all the goodness in our lives that we might take for granted: a comfy place to live, indoor plumbing, ample food and clean water, a familiar bed, family and friends, freedom from slavery. The First Commandment presents us with the image of God freeing us from slavery as a reminder to cultivate our gratitude for all the blessings we experience in the course of our days.

As the Jewish chaplain at Holy Name Medical Center, I meet people when they are in pain. Last week, I met a woman, “Mrs. Green,” who was an inspiration. Though she was unable to rise from her bed and in obvious discomfort, she was calm. She told me how every morning she counted her blessings, and this morning she had a long list. She was thankful for all the technology that was supporting her. She spoke with gratitude of the clean sheets and the bolster that eased her neck. She spoke with great fondness for the people who interacted with her: the busy nurses who took the time to schmooze with her as they made their rounds, her family and friends who were sending their good wishes, the doctors and therapists who were working on her medical problems, the many support staff in the hospital who kept the place running so smoothly. She explained that through her gratitude, she was able to feel the Divine Presence accompanying her, a relationship which brought her strength. Through her own good cheer, “Mrs. Green” brought a sparkle to the eyes of those who interacted with her, making them feel appreciated, brightening their day. “Mrs. Green” understood the secret of the First Commandment, that the foundation of Torah is feeling gratitude for the Divine miracles of daily life.