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Yitro 5763-2003

“‘Proving G-d’s Existence”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, in Exodus 20, we read the first of the two versions of the “Ten Commandments” that appear in the Torah. The name “Ten Commandments” is actually a misnomer, since in Hebrew these texts are known as the Aseret Hadibrot. That is why we often refer to them as the Decalogue, which means Ten Statements, a nomenclature that is closer to the original Hebrew. According to the Babylonian sage, Saadia Gaon (d. 942), the name “Ten Commandments” is also inappropriate, because all 613 commandments are subsumed within the Ten Statements.

The first of the Ten Statements, Exodus 20:2, reads: “Ah’no’chee Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha ah’sher ho’tzay’tee’cha may’eretz mitzrayim mee’bayt ah’vadim,” I am the Lord thy G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. While some commentators argue that this first statement reflects the commandment to believe in G-d, others strongly disagree. They maintain that this statement is not a commandment, but merely an affirmation of an historical event–the Exodus from Egypt. They cite the rabbis of the Talmud who state (Brachot 33b): “Hakol bee’day sha’mayim chootz mee’yirat sha’mayim,” Everything is the hands of Heaven–G-d can make a human being do anything–except believe in Him. Because if belief in G-d is coerced, it is not belief. Belief must emerge from a personal desire and stem from free will.

While many like to speak of “proofs” of G-d’s existence, to my mind, Judaism does not really encourage this intellectual exercise, simply because the finite human mind cannot really comprehend the Infinite. But while there may not be any “ultimate” proofs of G-d’s existence, there surely are many, many indications and abundant evidence of G-d’s existence. Indeed, a most persuasive case from many different disciplines can be made for G-d’s existence.

There is a famous and fascinating “Argument of Wager” formulated by Pascal (d. 1662) in which the Jesuit thinker argues that if a person leads a righteous life and discovers at the end of his days that he was wrong–and that there is no G-d, then what has he lost? But if a person leads a non-believing and non-righteous life, and at the end of his days discovers that he was wrong, then he’s in deep trouble! In other words, according to Pascal: Hedge your bets. Be a believer!

When Jews speak of G-d, we don’t often speak of “knowledge” of G-d, but rather of “belief” in G-d. Rabbi Joseph Albo (Spanish-Jewish philosopher and theologian (c. 1380-c. 1444) wrote in his Sefer HaIkarim, chap. 2:30: “Eelu y’dativ heh’yeetiv”–If I knew G-d, I would be G-d!–powerfully underscoring the intellectual limitations of the human mind. That is why Jews say: “Ani ma’amin,” I believe in G-d. “Belief” implies doubt, a lack of certainty and definitiveness. It’s the “leap of faith” which makes belief in G-d so intriguing, and it is for the effort to achieve faith that humans are rewarded. We Jews are a questioning people, because questioning leads to growth, and challenging results in greater understanding.

As I previously indicated, there are many indications of G-d’s existence, and in arguing for the existence of G-d, the opening statement of the Decalogue is invaluable. And when the evidence is examined in its aggregate, it forms a powerful and compelling argument for G-d’s existence.

“I am the L-rd thy G-d, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” First and foremost, this text asserts that those who wish to know G-d, must study Jewish history–just study Jewish history! Even a cursory review of Jewish history underscores the inevitable conclusion that there is a G-d. In an 18 century conversation between Prussia’s King Frederick II, and the Danish diplomat Count Reventlow, the King asked for the one proof of G-d’s existence that has not yet been refuted. The Count replied, “The Jews, your majesty, the Jews.”

In essence, we must all ask ourselves, “How is it possible that our people has survived–against all odds?” In every generation they rise up to destroy us, and yet, we’ve made it! We are still here! The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the ancient Chinese, the ancient Romans, the most powerful and most advanced nations of old are no longer, yet the Jews survive! In every single generation we’ve been at the precipice of annihilation, and yet we remain. Can the finger of G-d and the Al-mighty’s involvement in the survival of the Jewish people be more obvious? Not only is Jewish survival beyond rational comprehension, the people of Israel appear to play the central role in all of human history. Even today we see that an overwhelming percentage of the major deliberations of the United Nations concern Israel, and therefore the Jews. How is it possible that this demographically insignificant and numerically infinitesimal people play so prominent a role in the world?” We cannot but conclude that Jews are a very special people and that the Al-mighty surely directs their destiny!

Furthermore, students of the Bible are well aware of the fact that the Bible is always brief on verbiage and never verbose–without purpose. Nevertheless, the first statement, “I am the L-rd, thy G-d, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” seems to be unduly repetitive? After all, everyone knows that the land of Egypt was the “house of bondage,” and that the house of bondage was the “land of Egypt.” The repetition comes to teach a most profound lesson. Ancient Egypt was considered the “Cradle of Civilization.” The Egyptians developed the use of cuneiform and papyri, and their embalming skills are unmatched even today. Their advanced engineering and mathematical skills enabled them to build the unparalleled pyramids. Egyptian civilization was rich with opera and theater–it was truly the most advanced civilization if its time. Nevertheless, this same “advanced” and “cultured” people were able to take little Jewish children and cast them into the river, or plaster them into walls when the Israelite slaves did not produce enough bricks.

The extra verbiage and the unusual syntax of the first statement of the Decalogue is really positing one of the foremost and revolutionary concepts of humanity: Don’t ever confuse culture with civilization! In this brief statement, we are introduced face-to-face with but one of hundreds of revolutionary ideas that are introduced by our Torah. Among the abundance of unique ideas contained in our Hebrew Bible, which by all accounts is over 3,000 years old, are not causing undo pain to animals, concern for the environment, the concept of a day of rest, numerous laws regarding honesty and probity in business, the concept of tzedaka–of righteousness and charity. There are cultures that to this very day do not subscribe to the idea of helping strangers or of coming to the aid of fellow human beings. They believe that helping others in need may be defying G-d’s will that they suffer. Yet, over 3,000 years ago, the Torah revolutionized civilization by introducing these incredibly revolutionary concepts. The inability to distinguish between culture and civilization (which seems so self-evident), is what made it possible in our times for German Nazis to cry when they heard the poetry of Goethe and Schiller or the music of Wagner, and be completely indifferent to the cries of Jewish children who were trampled to death or asphyxiated in gas chambers. Don’t ever confuse culture with civilization!

So if you really want to find G-d, look into His Torah, acknowledge the miracle of Jewish survival and recognize the utter brilliance of the many revolutionary concepts that the Torah introduced to the world. The first statement of the Ten Commandments is a good place to start. It may be short on verbiage, but it is of infinite duration on ideas. We, theĀ descendantsĀ of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, may justifiably delight in the vast and unparalleled wisdom that is to be found in G-d’s book.

May you be blessed.