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Parshat Yitro: Do You Believe in God?

Do you believe in God? This is probably the most basic question, not only about religion, but about life itself. It is a question and issue that has resonated for almost everyone who has ever lived at any time in history and today. So what’s the Jewish view? “Of course you should” is probably what you are thinking. But it’s more than that. 

We get some insight from this week’s parsha, Yitro which has The 10 Commandments. And there, right at the outset of this dramatic moment when God communicates with the entire nation, we have the declaration of, I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, and from the place of slavery. You shall have no gods other than Me.

According to Jewish tradition, the statement of I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, and from the place of slavery is the mitzva to believe in God. It should be noted that if you google “The 10 Commandments” you will most likely get the Christian version which breaks down the 2nd  of the 10, You shall have no gods other than Me into 2 different commandments – not to believe in other gods and not to make any image of God. But that’s not how we have it. Even though the first of The 10 Commandments is more of a statement or declaration, our tradition tells us that it is the mitzva/commandment about belief in God.  

There is a pretty obvious question concerning any commandment to believe in God that many have asked throughout the ages. Namely, how can you have a mitzva/commandment to believe in God? Either you do, in which case, any commandment to do so is redundant. Or you don’t, in which case, who cares about any commandment from a God to believe in when you don’t subscribe to that notion in the first place?

It is for this very reason that Maimonides – the great 12th century Jewish thinker who codified all 613 Commandments and explained them in his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah – is very careful in how he words this mitzva. He writes that the commandment is not about belief per se but לידע layda – to know that there is a God. Knowing God versus Believing in God. 

There are a couple of ways to understand what it means to know there is a God. One is that a person should endeavor to seek evidence to God’s existence so it’s not blind faith that animates ones connection to God but an intellectual knowledge that does so. The only problem with this approach is that you can spend forever trying to sort through the evidence one way or another. Plus the fact that not everyone has the intellectual, philosopher-wired brain to do this in any meaningful fashion. Not that it isn’t an important exercise and one should spend some time figuring out whether our world, universe and life makes more sense with God in the picture or without. 

The more practical use and definition of Rambam’s wording of לידע layda in explaining this mitzva is “knowing” in the Biblical sense – which always implies an intimate connection between two parties.  This is really what the mitzva is all about. It’s not enough to have an intellectual or philosophical belief in God’s existence. That might be all nice and well, but Judaism cares more about a person having an ongoing relationship with God. Knowing someone is very different than just a happenstance, unfamiliar acquaintance with another where we don’t really identify nor recognize another and care for who they are. 

This is the reason why there are so many mitzvot in Judaism. Close and intimate relationships by their very definition have lots of rules and deeds and actions and emotions that two people share. A husband/wife or a parent/child relationship is filled with constant and consistent behaviors that one has to the other. There is constant probing and understanding of one another as we go through life’s ups and down, challenges and good and bad times that can make or break the relationship – hopefully making it. And when that happens, we peel away new layers of knowing each other with every new turn and circumstance in life.  

This is what the first mitzva of the 10 Commandments is all about. That ongoing relationship with God – through good times and bad – which indeed results in times where we might feel really close to God and other times when we feel distant from God. It very much mirrors the way any relationship goes through its ebbs and flows. 

This is why this mitzva of Knowing God is one of the Six Constant Mitzvot. Constant, all the time. Like any deep relationship, it isn’t a twice-a-year thing to visit on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and not a once-a-week thing every Shabbat nor even a couple-times-a-day thing during daily prayer services. No, it’s a mitzva that is every present much the way that my closest relationship with my wife is way more than just a moment here and there. It’s every day, many times a day, all the time.  

This is what the first of The 10 Commandments really means to convey. It isn’t just about believing or not in God. It’s all about knowing God. Because to Know Him is to Love Him. 

Did you write the Book of Love?
And do you have faith in God above?
If the Bible tells you so
Now do you believe in Rock and Roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
-Don McLean

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