I'LL BELIEVE IT WHEN I SEE IT
Jed C. Linsider
Among the most striking features of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (besides its length) are the visual effects employed depicting the events at Mt. Sinai.
Among the most striking features of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (besides its length) are the visual effects employed depicting the events at Mt. Sinai. DeMille spared no effort in portraying the giving of the Torah by G-d to the Israelites as a momentous event to be remembered for all time.
DeMille may have found his inspiration for this epic portrayal in the verses of the Torah itself. Two verses, employing similar language, stand out as brackets on either side of the Ten Commandments. They read as follows:
"You have seen (atem re'item) what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me" (Exodus 19:4).
"Hashem said to Moses, 'So shall you say to the Children of Israel, 'You have seen (atem re'item) that I have spoken to you from heaven''" (ibid. 20:19).
The use in both verses of the Hebrew term atem re'item, you have seen, places heavy emphasis on the witnessing of Hashem's greatness and deeds first-hand. Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, observes on the second of the verses that there is a difference between what a person himself sees and what others relate to him. Second-hand knowledge is simply not as believable or as meaningful as when one witnesses it with one's own eyes. Similarly, Rashi, commenting on the first verse, emphasizes the importance of witnessing, first-hand, Hashem's actions against the Egyptians that freed the Jewish people from bondage.
However, even without these verses, the experience at Mt. Sinai is portrayed in immediate visual terms. It is obvious from the events related in the Torah that the Jewish people received the Torah first-hand from Hashem. And the beginning of the Ten Commandments, in relating Hashem's omnipotence, also announces to the Jewish people that this is G-d who took you out of Egypt. It thus seems that the two verses mentioned above are repetitive and therefore unnecessary. Given the concept that there are no unnecessary words in the Torah, why are these verses included? What is there to be learned from the additional emphasis on first-hand knowledge of Hashem?
To answer this question, perhaps we can start by examining the beginning portion of the Ten Commandments. In the Talmud (Tractate Makkot 23b) we read the following: There were 613 mitzvot transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai. . .From where do we know this? The verse says, "Moses commanded us Torah" (Deuteronomy 33:4). In gematria (numerical value) the letters of the word "Torah" add up to 611, while the first two of the Ten Commandments, "Anochi Hashem - I am Hashem" and "Lo yihyeh - You shall have no other gods" are counted separately because they were heard directly from Hashem.
It is clear that this first portion of the Ten Commandments is set apart from the rest of it. In fact, the classical commentators have debated for centuries whether in fact the first of the Ten Commandments, "Anochi Hashem - I am Hashem," should be counted as part of the overall list of 613 mitzvot. Rambam (Maimonides), among others, counts it as one of the 613. He even lists "faith in G-d" as the first of the 248 positive commandments. On the other hand, such noted classic commentators as Abarbanel and Bahag write that "faith in G-d" is not one of the 613 commandments. Instead, it is an underlying principle that must be understood in order to comprehend the entire concept of following Torah and mitzvot.
Regardless of the halachic ramifications of whether "faith in G-d" is itself a mitzvah or an underlying philosophical premise, the point that is made is clear. Belief in G-d is fundamental to Judaism and the observance of mitzvot. The opening portion of the Ten Commandments is the foundation of faith. It teaches us that Hashem exists and that He is One.
We can now recognize the importance of "Anochi Hashem - I am Hashem". Because the Jewish people witnessed the momentous events at Mt. Sinai with their own eyes and heard these first words from Hashem Himself, they were able to rationally comprehend the existence of G-d. This understanding laid the foundation for observing and believing in Torah and mitzvot. This also explains the use of the wording "atem re'item - you have seen" and the emphasis Rashi places on first-hand knowledge. Yet what is to be learned from the repetition of the idea? What is the significance of "atem re'item" bracketing the Ten Commandments?
If we examine each verse separately, we will see that the brackets actually point outward. The first one, "You have seen (atem re'item) what I did to Egypt, and that I have borne you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me," points back to the past. Rashbam, a classic 12th century commentator on the Torah, interprets the words at the end of the verse as meaning "so that I may be your G-d". Nechama Leibowitz, a contemporary teacher of Torah in Israel, explains that the first part of the verse would seems to be the means by which Hashem enabled the Jewish people to come and worship Him. Stating "atem re'item - you have seen" is not just another emphasis on the importance of witnessing, first-hand, Hashem's actions in Egypt. Rather it is a statement of the means that accomplish the end.
Our sages teach that the Jewish people had sunk to the 49th and next to lowest level of impurity before they were rescued from Egypt. When Hashem freed the Children of Israel from bondage, He did more than liberate them from physical servitude. He also released them from a spiritual enslavement. Hashem provided the Jewish people with the opportunity to recover and achieve a spiritual level worthy of receiving the Torah. The following Midrash illustrates the point: This may be explained with a parable concerning a prince who had just recovered from sickness. The prince's father said: We shall wait three months to give him time to convalesce, and afterwards I shall take him to the rabbi's home to study Torah. Similarly, when the Children of Israel went forth from Egypt, some of them had been maimed by the bondage. Hashem declared: I shall wait for them to recover and afterwards I shall give them the Torah.
The significance of "atem re'item - you have seen" is now evident. The Jewish people didn't just witness Hashem freeing them from physical slavery. They witnessed the beginning of a process which would ultimately enable them to achieve the loftiest of goals: acceptance of Hashem as Supreme Being and the subsequent reception of Torah and mitzvot.
As for the second verse, "Hashem said to Moses, 'So shall you say to the Children of Israel, 'You have seen (atem re'item) that I have spoken to you from heaven,'" we find that it points forward to the future. It seems odd that Hashem tells Moses, right after the Jewish people have recognized Hashem's existence, to again say, "atem re'item". In fact there is a very important lesson to learn from this. This second verse is directed towards all generations of Jewish people. The Torah is an eternal present from Hashem that cannot be changed by future generations. Since the Jewish people witnessed the giving of the Torah with their own eyes, we are therefore convinced of the truth of the Torah. Should someone try to alter it, they would be challenging G-d himself.
Furthermore, it is stated in the Midrash that all of the Jewish people, past, present, and future, in fact experienced the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This second usage of "atem re'item" stands as a reminder to all generations. Just as your ancestors witnessed first-hand the giving of the Torah, and learned to know and believe in Hashem, so too, each and everyone of us should live our lives as though we, too, witnessed the giving of the Torah first-hand, learning to know and believe in Hashem. May we all merit to learn the lesson of "atem re'item" and live a life full of Torah and mitzvot.
Jed C. Linsider, a senior at Columbia University, is married to Kim Slovin of Atlanta and plans to settle in Atlanta in June.
You are invited to read more Parshat Yitro articles.
Would you recommend this article to a friend? Let us know by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org