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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

A Mitzvah of Belief?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 2, 1998)
Topics: God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Mitzvot, Sefer Shemot, Torah, Yitro

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In parshat Yitro, we reach the climax of the Exodus story. It has been just seven short weeks since God demonstrated His might to the Egyptians and Israelites, and now the Children of Israel arrive at Mount Sinai to directly encounter God, receive His commandments, and become a people, His people. Amidst the thunder and lightening and the divine revelation, God declares Himself and commands the Israelites with the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

This declaration, however, is at once both more than and less than a commandment. It is more than a mere commandment because it is the basis for all other commandments; belief in God is the foundation upon which the Torah rests. But it is also less than a commandment because nothing is being commanded. The Israelites are told that God exists, but they are not being commanded to believe it. There is no use of the imperative in this first statement. In fact, the phrase ‘Ten Commandments’ is a poor translation from the Hebrew; the Torah speaks only of the ‘Ten Statements’. The simple sense of the verse, and this was certainly the opinion of the early commentators, is that there is no command to believe in God’s existence. How can this be so? Isn’t belief in God fundamental?

The answer is that yes, belief in God is fundamental but, nevertheless, there may be a number of reasons why belief is not, or perhaps cannot be, commanded. First, the Israelites, who were experiencing God at Mt. Sinai, had no need for such a commandment. Belief was not the issue, behavior and observance was. Second, for God to command belief in Himself is nonsensical, even paradoxical – if one believes, he does not need to be commanded; if one does not believe, he will not believe that he is being commanded by God, so the command serves no purpose. But perhaps the most significant reason is the one that we struggle with daily – how can we make ourselves believe? It is possible to command behavior: our actions are subject to our will. But how can God command belief? Even if we want to believe, we cannot force ourselves to believe. We can say that we believe, but this is not belief. God, then, in His wisdom did not command us to believe, only to act.

Does this mean that the Torah is unconcerned with belief? Hardly. It merely means that the Torah realizes that the road to achieving belief is not the straight one. The Torah rarely tells us the purpose for mitzvot, but if there is one idea that constantly recurs it is to remember God and the miracles of the Exodus: “And you shall make fringes … and you shall see them, and you shall remember that I am the Lord who takes you out of Egypt.” “And you shall guard the Sabbath to keep it holy … and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” “In order that you shall remember the day that you left Egypt all the days of your life.” The Torah recognizes that action and thought are inexorably intertwined. Belief is needed for mitzvot; mitzvot engender belief. How we think affects how we act, and how we act affects how we think.

Belief is not a black and white issue. Very few of us believe without any doubts or, alternatively, reject faith absolutely. Most of us are somewhere between the extremes, and find ourselves closer to one extreme or the other at different stages of our lives. What are we supposed to do when we doubt, when we struggle? We might feel that if we do not believe, if we are having doubts, there is no point in doing the mitzvot. In this we make a major mistake. The mitzvot are not just for those who believe to be a means of expressing faith. The mitzvot are also – at least equally, if not more so – for those who doubt as a means to finding faith. If we are doubting God and say to ourselves, “Since I have so many doubts, it seems hypocritical to light Shabbos candles or to make kiddush; I’m not going to bother,” we are not fence-sitting; by our inaction, we are acting to express our lack of faith. If, however, we say, “I’m having doubts, but I’m trying to believe. I’ll light candles this Friday,” then we are giving expression to that part of us that at very least is trying to believe. When the Rabbis instituted that when a person loses his mother or father he proclaims, “Blessed are You O Lord, God of the Universe, the True Judge,” “May His great name be hallowed and sanctified,” they did not do so because the mourner is at faith’s summit; they did it because he may be at its depth. By proclaiming God’s justice – the very thing he is doubting and questioning – he is forced to awaken in himself that little piece of him that is still fighting to believe.

Whatever we do, we are choosing which part of ourselves to express, which part of ourselves to give supremacy. The more we express one side of ourselves, the more that side will grow stronger and will transform who we are. Belief cannot be commanded, but the path to belief can be found in all the other commandments.