The First Mitzvah and the Last

In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first is believing in God. The last is that a king should not amass great personal wealth.

In a certain way, those two commandments, one positive and one negative, are intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning and the end of the first and last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire prayer (Berachot 34b).

Ego is integral to our characters and its distortions common to our struggles. It pushes us to do things and even want things that higher impulses warn against. As the world recognizes the eminence of an individual — priest, prophet, sage, king or, in our day, politician, tycoon, star, athlete — the temptation to self-aggrandizement grows greater.

Acknowledging that we are human and ephemeral, that there is a God, infinitely greater than ourselves, helps induce the humility that reminds us not to overestimate our own gifts and accomplishments. The first and last mitzvah tie together to remind us that achievement is worthy; arrogance is outrageous.

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.
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