Yitro: Mitzvah 25-Concept 2: Essay
You Should Not Think That There Is Any Power Other Than God
The second of the Ten Statements begins; “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence.” A literal translation of elohim is powers. The commandment is that we should not think that there is any power other than God.
Part 1: The Six Constant Commandments:
This Mitzvah is also the second of the Six Constant Mitzvot and is therefore a commandment of being not just fulfilling. I am commanded to be such a human being for whom it is impossible to believe that there is any power other than God.
Part 2: Positive and Negative Commandments:
Why is this commandment a negative commandment rather than a positive Mitzvah; “You must know that all power comes from God”?
Every negative commandment addresses a natural drive of a human being. It is natural for us to forget that God is the Source of all Power. We prefer to believe that we are in control. In fact we are desperate to assert as much control as possible over our lives. We lose touch with the reality of God and want to believe that it is possible to control what is happening with our lives. Even people who lose some control desperately attempt to assert control. When someone becomes ill, they search for the best doctor as the best way to control the situation. This Mitzvah is speaking directly to this desire to control everything.
The analogy that is usually given to explain the positive and negative commandments is that of a doctor; the doctor will instruct his patient as to what to do to remain healthy and what to avoid to prevent illness. In the same way that positive commandments are God’s instruction as to how we can maintain the spiritual health of our souls. The negative commandments are God’s instructions as to what to avoid to prevent spiritual illness.
It is generally understood that the positive commandments nurture our souls and the negative commandments are there to prevent us from damaging our spiritual being. The fulfillment of a positive commandment allows us to acquire spiritual strength. The negative commandment prevents us from going against the will of God thereby weakening our connection to Him. The court is empowered to punish us for breaking most negative commandments to allow us to undo the damage to our souls. The court would actually urge the guilty person to confess before God before they would administer the punishment in order to inspire him to repent. They would then read from the portion of the Torah that was broken so that he would be aware that the punishment was a fixing of his sin.
Maimonides says that the punishment for a negative commandment is an indication of the severity of its damage to the person and creation. When he teaches the laws of Teshuva, Maimonides describes the different levels of damage caused by our sins, and they are all described by their punishments: If a person violates a positive commandment which is not punishable by Karet, and repents, he will not leave that place before he is forgiven. Concerning these sins it is written; “Return, faithless children! I will heal your rebellious acts.” If a person violates a prohibition that is not punishable by Karet or execution by the court and repents, Teshuva has a tentative effect and Yom Kippur brings atonement, as it states; “This day will atone for you.” If a person violates a prohibition punishable by Karet or execution by the court and repents, Teshuva and Yom Kippur have a tentative effect and the sufferings which come upon him complete the atonement. He will never achieve complete atonement until he endures suffering for concerning these sins it states; “I will punish their transgression with a rod.” The punishment is a reflection of the damage caused by the sin.
The court does not hand out any rewards for the fulfillment of the commandments because the reward cannot be measured in human terms. Even the reward for those Mitzvot which will be rewarded in this world cannot be measured in human terms. It is impossible for us to understand the impact of a single Mitzvah.
In Chassidic thought the difference between the two types of commandments is described as a positive commandment increasing the light of God in the person while breaking a negative commandment decreases the light.
From a more mundane perspective we find that we usually have a strong desire, even passion, for the forbidden. It is far more difficult to find an equal passion to fulfill the positive commandments even when they are not inconvenient.
We cannot reach the negative aspect of this commandment until we have reached the awareness of how powerful it is to be a human being. There is a positive side to this commandment; we must first develop our independence and potential before we face the challenge of this Mitzvah.
Part 3: Source and Wielder of Power:
There is a difference between a source of power and one who wields power. One who wields power is not necessarily the source of the power being wielded and one who is a source of power does not always wield immediate power. For example; if someone is a private in the army his sergeant wields power over him. The sergeant is not the source of his power although he is wielding tremendous power over the private. The source of the sergeant’s power traces back all the way through his superiors and in turn theirs all the way back to the Commander in Chief, the president of the United States. The president, the source of the sergeant’s power, does not even have the power of the private. It is the private who is in battle shooting missiles. We differentiate between the source of power and the one who possesses the power and uses it.
Whatever power we have comes from God. The power to wiggle our fingers is ours to wield, but the source of that power is God. We may yield the power to write, but the source of that power is God. We may not believe that there is any power other than God. We may not believe that the power we have to move our arms is our own. It comes from God.
Part 4: The First Idol Worshippers:
This differentiation between source and wielder of power has many implications. Maimonides explains that originally everyone acknowledged that God was the only source of power. No one believed that the sun and the moon were the source of their own power. They believed that whatever powers the sun and the moon had, because they do have some power, came from the Source of all Power; God. However, they said that it is not logical to say that if the Source of Power granted such great power to the sun and the moon that the Source did not want us to acknowledge and serve the power that God gave them. They wield tremendous power over humanity the weather, whether things will grow, whether we will have food, the tides and even our moods. Obviously God granted them power so that we can relate to Him through them who have so much more power than we do. This is how idol worship began. People believed that the wielders of power were to be used as messengers by those with less power, human beings, to serve God, the Source of all Power.
The first idol worshippers made two mistakes; first of all, the sun and moon do not have any power. The only power is God. Second of all, human beings have more power than the sun and moon. The first definition of power is the ability to do something that has not been pre-programmed for you to do. The sun may emanate power, but the sun does not possess any power of its own. Any power that it has was granted to it by the Source of Power. It can only do was it was told to do, no more and no less. The sun cannot say, “I have a headache today and I don’t think that I will rise.” It will not happen. The moon may have power but it does not have the ability to choose how to use its power. Rocks have tremendous power, but only in how they are used. None of the above possesses any true independent power.
Part 5: The Power of Free Choice:
In fact, there is only one creation that has any power at all; the human being. A human being can be creative. A human being can make a difference. A human being can affect his environment. A human being actually possesses enormous power; the power of Free Choice. We feel it. We experience it. We know that we have power over other people, our lives and our environment.
This Mitzvah is telling us that we must reach a state of existence at which we will acknowledge that even the power that we have been granted comes from God, the Source of Power.
This concept deals with the struggle of a human being to be independent. God gave us Free Choice and the power to be creative, to make an impact, to influence and make a difference. There is only one thing that God by definition cannot do; give us our independence. He can make it possible for us to be independent, but He cannot make us be independent; if He did that we wouldn’t be independent. We must take advantage of the freedom to be independent.
One very common expression is that we should do the Mitzvot L’shaim Shamim, for the sake of heaven. There is only one thing that we can do for God that He “cannot” do; act independently.
The first time that God spoke to Abraham and instructed him to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house, He said, “Go, for your sake.”God did not say, “Do it for me.” He said, “Do it for you.” God wants us to see the advantage to ourselves in obeying Him. God does not ask us to do things for Him, but for ourselves. God wants us to be independent. We observe the commandments in order to become independent beings.
This is the highest form of emulation of God. God is absolutely independent. God granted us independence in order to live in His likeness.
Part 6: The Struggle of Independence:
God created us in His likeness in order to be independent. Our purpose is to master ourselves independently so that we can be more like Him and therefore attach to Him with more intensity. The drive for independence is a chip in our brains. It is part of our makeup, our spiritual DNA. Yet, this commandment is challenging us, who are independent; to understand that there is absolutely no power other than God. Our power, hence our independence, does not exist. It is all God.
This is the essence of this commandment. This is at the center of most of our struggles with the Mitzvot It is very difficult to keep certain commandments. Many people are willing to accept certain Mitzvot because they fit into their lifestyle. Or they make keep a specific commandment to a certain degree but no more. There are other commandments about which people will feel don’t apply to them or their situation, or even perhaps, that they don’t make sense. “They don’t speak to my soul in a meaningful way.”
That is saying that “I am an independent, powerful being!” This is a wonderful thing to say, because that is what God wants. However, the point is that as we become more independent we must struggle even harder to acknowledge that there is no power other than God. My power is not my own.
This is why the Talmud says that “Whoever is greater than another will have a greater Evil Inclination.” It does not say that he will have a greater Good Inclination, it says greater Evil Inclination. The Talmud describes that when the Messiah will slaughter the Evil Inclination everyone will come to see their slain adversary. The wicked will see something no more substantial than the thickness of the thread of a spider web. They will wonder and cry, “How were we defeated by such an insignificant enemy?” The righteous will see something as large as Mt. Everest and they will wonder and cry, “How were we able to fight such a formidable enemy?” The Evil Inclination of the righteous is far stronger than that of a wicked person, exactly the opposite of what we would expect.
One explanation lies at the root of our discussion. The righteous use the Mitzvot to develop their independence to the highest possible levels. They now face the challenge of acknowledging that their independence is not their own. There is no power other than God. A person must struggle constantly to become independent only to declare that he has no power at all.
The point of Judaism is to become independent, powerful and in touch with the unlimited potential of being a human being. The more independent we become the more distant we are from God. We begin to believe that we are our own masters. This is why creation culminated in the Shabbat. Creation became more independent with each stage. Each form of creation was higher than the preceding until it culminated in the most independent being; man. There is a terrible tension. The snake accurately described us as, “and you will be as powers.” The Shabbat is the restoration of the connection between the creation and its Creator. This is why Shabbat shares the same root as Teshuva, to return. Our relationship with God is restored. We run around all work earning a living and being in control. On Shabbat we cease all creative work, the greatest expression of our independence, and remember that God is the only source of Power.
Part 7: Blessing God:
One of the most interesting phrases in prayer is the opening saying of every blessing: “Blessed are You, God.” How can we bless God? When people go to another person for a blessing they usually go to a very righteous person who has a more powerful attachment to God and who has something to offer. If we give a blessing to God it means that we have something to offer God, Who has no needs. What do we have to offer God?
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the Fear of Heaven.” There is something that is not in the hands of heaven; Fear of Heaven, or, Free Choice. We do have something to give to God, our Free Choice. When we ay the words, “Blessed are You, God,” we are saying that we dedicate our Free Choice to God. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin defines this phrase as “You are the Source of all Blessing.” This means that God is the Source of all Blessing, even our ability to give Him a blessing!
Part 8: Free Choice and God’s Will:
The seeming contradiction between this concept, that there is no power other than God, and that of Free Choice, appears numerous times in the Bible. When Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit “filled with snakes and scorpions,” which was tantamount to killing him rather than kill him directly they were testing the Divine Will. They knew that if they killed him it wouldn’t prove that God wanted Joseph to die because they had Free Choice which would empower them to kill their brother even if God didn’t want him to die. They threw him into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions which do not have Free Choice to see if God wanted Joseph to die. If God directed the animals to kill Joseph it would prove that Joseph deserved death. If Joseph survived the snakes and scorpions that could only function according to God’s Will, that would prove that God wanted Joseph alive. This would certainly imply that Free Choice can contradict God’s Will.
There is another example of this power of Free Choice in the life of King David. The king ordered a census of the Jews which was not allowed by Jewish Law. God sent the prophet Gad to offer King David the choice of one of three punishments; 1) seven years of famine, 2) three months at the mercy of his enemies, or 3) three days of devastating plague. “David said to Gad, ‘I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into the Hand of God, for His mercies are abundant; but let me not fall into human hands.” Why would David be concerned about falling into human hands if God is in control of everything? A human being’s Free Choice can contradict Divine Will.
On the other hand, it is Kind David himself who says that everything that human beings do is because God willed it that way. When David was fleeing Jerusalem because of the rebellion of Absalom, his son, Shimi ben Gerah, a member of King Saul’s family, came out to curse David; “Go out, go out, you man of bloodshed, you base man. God is repaying you for all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead you have reigned, and has given over the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. Behold; you are now afflicted because you are a man of bloodshed!” Abishai, who was with David, wanted to kill Shimi; “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? I will go on ahead and take off his head!”
David’s response goes directly to our discussion of Free Choice and Divine Will: “He is cursing me because God has said to him, ‘Curse David.’” Why did David not say that Shimi was acting of his own free will and was not necessarily acting in accordance with the Divine Will?
Jewish law also acknowledges a human being as having power. We are not allowed to bow to an idol, the sun or moon because they have no power. We are allowed to bow to a human being; we bow to the king. Even a prophet must stand before the king and prostrate himself on the ground as it state, “behold, Nathan, the prophet came before the king and prostrated himself before the king.” This is only because a human being has the power of Free Choice. We are permitted to make requests of a human being only because a human being has the Free Choice to fulfill our request or not. A request is a form of prayer. When we say “Please,” we are using one of the forms of prayer. We are in effect praying to a human being because he has the power of Free Choice.
Maimonides asks this question in another form; “Since God knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked? If He knows that that the person will be righteous, it appears impossible for him not to be righteous. However, if one would say that despite His knowledge that the person would be righteous, it is possible for him to be wicked then God’s knowledge would be incomplete.”
Maimonides paraphrases a verse to say in reference to the answer to this question; “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.”
Jeremiah said; “From the mouth of the Most High, neither ill nor good come forth.” There are numerous verses in the bible that say the choices are ours. God does not determine who will be righteous and who will be evil. We must choose our paths for ourselves. We cannot possibly understand God’s knowledge which is a reflection of His Being. We must deal with the world based on our perceptions of it and what is presented to us on our level. We cannot live our finite lives trying to understand God’s Will with anything other than His instructions in the Torah. We were given the commandments as instructions for living. God is telling us how He wants us to function.
Part 9: Divine Will and Ability:
In Kabbalistic terms we say that God “withdrew His Presence” in order to allow us to live and function. We must deal with the world as we perceive it through His instructions and commandments. The Mitzvot are not simply rules. They are the key to dealing with reality as we see it in order to connect it back to its source and attach to that source.
When we deal with the world we deal with God’s expressed Will rather than the essence of His Will. We interact with expressed Will rather than His true ability. For example; if an engineer builds a small bridge, would it be correct to conclude from this that he is incapable of constructing a larger or wider bridge? He is simply responding to the expressed needs of his client. We cannot deduce anything about his ability from the fact that he built a narrow bridge; all we can deduce is what his desire was. The goal, a small bridge, places limitations on the desire. We can determine a person’s will through his actions and we can deduce his goal.
In the same way, we can deduce God’s desire and goal from His actions. We cannot determine God’s abilities from His actions.
God’s expressed Will, not full ability, created for us a world of choices. We can deduce from God’s actions what was His desire. God’s expressed desire was for us to have a world in which we determine whether we will be righteous or evil. That is the way we must relate to God and His creation.
They are not the Ten Commandments! There is more than ten Mitzvot in the Ten Statements. The translation of Aseret HaDibrot is Ten Statements.
See footnote 4. This commandment is the reason that my uncle disagreed with my father about the Six Constant Mitzvot; my uncle’s question is “How can you be a negative commandment?”
Laws of Teshuva 1:4 (Most of the direct quotations of Maimonides in Mishnah Torah are taken from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Moznaim Publishers 1990)
There are 3 different forms of Karet; early death, death of children and excision of the soul from the World to Come
Genesis 3:5 The snake did not lie. He is criticized by the Sages for speaking evil but not for lying.
Exodus 30:12 The Jews could only be counted at specific times and in a specific way. Mitzvah/Concept 119
ibid verse 10. See Radak: “God, Who has ordained that I suffer this degrading exile as punishment for my sins, has invoked this man as His agent to augment my suffering.” Rashi insists that Shimi would not have acted without specific Divine Sanction. However, my father OB”M always explained this verse according to the Radak.
Fifth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith; Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin; Chapter 10: One cannot pray to something that has no power.
Lamentations 3:38. This is Maimonides’ reading of this verse. (See Laws of Teshuva 5:2) The verse is usually understood as a question; “Does not all evil and good come from the mouth of the Highest Being?”