The first of the ten commandments delivered on Mount Sinai in Parshas Yisro is “אָֽנֹכי יְ-הֹוָה אֱ-לֹהיךָ אֲשֶׁר הֽוֹצֵאתיךָ מֵארֶץ מִצְריִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים/Anochi A-donai E-lohecha asher hotzeisicha me’eretz Mitzrayim mi’beis avadim/I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). It is a profound introduction, and a powerful way for G-d to begin His communication to Moses and the Hebrew nation. But we can’t help but wonder, is there an actual commandment in these words?
Unlike the subsequent nine commandments that instruct us on various behaviors or proscriptions – you shall have no other gods but me, honor your father and mother, don’t kill, etc. – this first commandment seems to lack a specific instruction. It seems to simply state a fact, that the one who is delivering these words is our Lord and our G-d, and furthermore, as the rest of the sentence states, He is the one who “took us out of the land of Egypt.” Why is that considered a “commandment,” and why is it the very first commandment no less? Furthermore, why does it need to state that He is both our “Lord/A-donai” and our “G-d/E-lohecha”? What is the difference between the two terms, and what makes them both necessary?
The mystics point out that each of the first three words of this verse refers to a different aspect of G-d. “אָֽנֹכי/Anochi,” which means “I”, refers to a level of G-d that is so lofty and inaccessible that it cannot even be captured by a name. A name is not the true essence of the thing that it signifies, it is rather a label by which other things can know it, grasp it, and relate to it. In itself, a being does not need a name; a name becomes necessary only when it is communicating with something other. “Anochi,” therefore, alludes to a level of G-dliness that is beyond names and beyond a relationship with the world.
The second word of the verse, “י-הוה/Y-h-v-h,” is a name of G-d that we do not pronounce as it is spelled because it is so holy. We therefore pronounce it as “A-donai” when we are praying or reading Torah, and we commonly speak of it as “Hashem/the name,” or sometimes as “Havaya” which is a remixing of the letters to produce a word that is similar to the actual name and enables us to discuss it without explicitly mentioning it. This name refers to a transcendent level of G-d that is “above” the world but simultaneously related to the world in that it creates it and “surrounds” it. Though we use spatial words, like “above” and “surround” to describe the relationship between the levels of G-dliness and the creation, these are only borrowed terms. For the name “A-donai” and the level of G-d that it represents, there is no space nor time, as these are merely constructs which G-d fashioned to manage and order this material creation. The very name “י-הוה/Y-h-v-h” alludes to its transcendent quality, as it contains within it the words “היה/hayah/was”, “הוה/hoveh/is”, and “יהיה/yihyeh/will be,” and thus indicates that past, present, and future are all contained within it as one.
The third name “E-lohecha,” is a form of the divine name “א-להים/E-lohim” which refers to G-dliness that pervades the world and interacts with it. “E-lohim” conducts the moment to moment operations of the creation. It is the aspect of G-d that has lowered itself to the extent that the actions of humankind carry significance. While “A-donai” is not phased by our deeds and conduct because from such a lofty and removed perspective we are all one and unified, “E-lohim” is the force of G-d that distinguishes between right and wrong and administers judgment and consequence.
By invoking all three of these names and levels of G-d, the first commandment is informing us of one of the deepest secrets of our reality: the level of “Anochi,” a G-dliness that is so lofty and boundless that it cannot even be named, descends into “A-donai,” a state of G-dliness which creates but transcends the creation, and thereby comes down into “E-lohim,” a divinity that can suffuse even the most picayune aspects of humanity.
Not only does the highest essence of absolute G-dliness make this precipitous descent into our world, but furthermore, as the verse states, “Anochi A-donai E-loheCHA/I am the Lord YOUR G-d!” If it had merely stated ‘Anochi A-donai E-lohim/I am the Lord G-d,’ this in itself would have been a profound disclosure informing us that G-d’s sublime essence descends into the very details of the creation. But by utilizing the possessive form and specifying “E-lohecha/Your G-d,” the verse reveals that “Anochi” and “A-donai” permeate not only into the level of “E-lohim,” but this level of “E-lohim” enables all of these degrees of G-dliness to become yours, to literally penetrate within you and to be possessed and incorporated by you. Through this process of the giving of the Torah, G-d becomes not only the consummate, infinite Creator that is above you and beyond you, but He has made Himself yours. He can be accessed by you, emulated by you, and attained by you.
In other words, because He has implanted “Anochi” within us, because He has thereby revealed to us the secret reality that there is nothing other than His oneness – that all of creation is unified in His unconcealed essence – thereby each of us can be G-dly, because we are G-dly! This transcendence of our mortal limitations is the explanation of the words that finish the first commandment, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” which literally means “restrictions” or “limitations.” When we become aware of the fact that we are inherently G-dly, there is nothing that can contain or restrain us.
Now we can understand why this verse is the first declaration that G-d conveyed to Moses on Mount Sinai. “I am the Lord your G-d” is not simply an introduction, or a prelude for the commandments that will follow. It is the very first commandment of the ten commandments because it is a statement of the deepest secret and purpose of our existence. My infinite essence, G-d informs us, trickles down through every fiber of My creation, and embeds itself within your core. It becomes yours to wield and to reveal.
This is not only a proclamation or a statement of fact, but it is a commandment with a very specific instruction. It is commanding us to know and internalize the fact that G-d is not merely omnipresent and beyond the world (“Anochi” and “A-donai”), but He is simultaneously immanent within us (“E-lohecha”). With this knowledge, we are instructed to transcend all of our perceived limitations (to go out of Mitzrayim/Egypt), and then to externalize and publicize the truth of G-d’s oneness throughout the creation. This is the first commandment because it is our entire life work and raison d’etre.