When we think about the Ten Commandments we assume them to be a set list of Ten Commandments that God spoke to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and which we all follow as a result of God's instruction. These commandments feature for the first time in this week's Torah portion. Sinai was all in smoke, and Adonai came down and out of the fire and spoke these words to the children of Israel.
Chapter twenty begins: ‘And God spoke all of these words saying’ (Ex. 20:1). But from that point on there is debate about how to divide the Ten Commandments. In the Jewish community we believe that verse two: ‘I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage’ (Ex. 20:2) is commandment number one. But in both the Protestant and Catholic traditions they include the following verse ‘You shall have no other gods beside Me’ (Ex. 20:3) in that first commandment. And in this way the division of the commandments is different for Jews and different for Christians.
For us we might wonder about the significance of including as our commandment: I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. How can this be considered to be a commandment, when it seems to be more a statement of fact of what happened? In many ways it might make sense that Christianity begins with you shall have no other gods beside me as the first commandment.
But for us, as Jews, there is something significant in beginning our Ten Commandments with I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. In this statement which is really a commandment we gain various insights.
The first is about our relationship with God: I am Adonai your God. In this way we are in a relationship with God. Our Ten Commandments begin because of our relationship as God's people and God being our God specifically, known to us by the name Adonai. And then the second part who brought you out of the land of Egypt. It is essentially a commandment to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and that God brought us forth from the house of bondage, away from slavery to freedom. The commandment comes because when we see ourselves as having been slaves that impacts the way that we relate to the rest of the world and relate to our situation. To lose that element of the first commandment takes away that slavery experience, and that is vital in what it means to be Jewish.
We know the heart of the slave because we were slaves. And therefore beginning with I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery as a commandment sets us Jews on a path that is different, that is unique from other people. And in this way our division of the Ten Commandments is so appropriate and so revealing of who we as a Jewish community are intended to be.