Two of the most well-known passages in the Torah appear in this week’s Torah portion: The Ten Commandments and the Shema. On close analysis, there seems to be a repetition between two of the mitzvot that feature in these passages.
The second of the Ten Commandments is the prohibition to follow other gods (elohim acheirim), and the Shema itself is the mitzvah to believe that G-d is the one and only G-d, (Yichud Hashem), which indicates that it is forbidden to believe in many gods. This prohibition seems to have been already covered in the mitzvah not to follow other gods, so what is added by the mitzvah to believe that there is only one G-d?
Evidently, the mitzvah of belief that G-d is one goes a lot further than just the requirement to believe that there is only one G-d.
In order to fully understand this mitzvah and contrast it to the mitzvah of not following other gods it is first necessary to explain what it means not to follow other gods and how this applies nowadays. In earlier times, there was a widespread desire to actively worship false gods so this mitzvah was highly pertinent. However, the Talmud relates that the Men of the Great Assembly removed the inclination of Idol worship, therefore, it would appear that from that time on, this mitzvah is basically obsolete. How does it apply to us?
In truth, this mitzvah is highly pertinent at all times. A false god is not just a physical idol, rather it is anything that a person ascribes power to, meaning that he believes that this thing is the source of a person’s success. It can include money, desires, oneself, one’s boss, or any number of other things that a person feels are the key to his success in life.
The Gemara1 points out another false god that influences everyone. King David in Psalms2 states that “there should not be within you a strange god”. The Gemara explains that this strange god refers to the negative inclination (yetzer hara) that actually pervades a person’s very consciousness. One possible meaning of this is that the negative inclination itself is what controls a person’s drives and fulfilling its desires will provide a person with satisfaction. And in this form, it is a kind of false god.
Thus, the mitzvah not to have other gods tells us that all those forces that convince us that the way to succeed is through them, are null and void when contrasted to the all-powerful G-d.
Yet, there is still something lacking in what a person’s attitude should be towards the various sources of power outside of G-d – that is where the mitzvah of belief in one G-d steps in: This mitzvah teaches that all of these powers are not ‘fighting’ G-d, they are not against Him. Rather, in truth, they are part of G-d’s purpose, just like everything in Creation.
For example, the ultimate goal of the negative inclination is not to cause us to turn away from G-d, rather its goal is for us to overcome its temptations and thereby become closer to Him. This is why the Sages state that when G-d saw that the creation on the sixth day was ‘very good’ in contrast to the other days where it was merely ‘good’, He was referring to the creation of the negative inclination – it is indeed very good because it brings us closer to our purpose of coming closer to G-d by overcoming its challenges. So too, the other powers that we view as taking away from closeness to G-d are also tools to get closer to Him.
In this vein, another application of belief in one G-d is that everything that happens to a person is directed at the same purpose of bringing him closer to G-d. Thus, seemingly ‘bad’ events that take place come from G-d just as much as pleasant Divine Providence. Both are there to bring us closer to him, albeit in different ways. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshivah of Aish HaTorah, expresses this even regard to ‘minor’ suffering that we view as nuisances. In his words3:
“We say that some things are good and some things are bad. What are you talking about? That negates [the idea of] “Hashem is our G-d, G-d is one!” You mean some things are working in one direction and some things in the other direction? Everything was created for the same purpose, because it has the same source, and its source is only good! Everything is made up of this Hashem-liness. Everything is good. Everything is created only for the sake of bringing us back to connecting to Hashem, being one with Hashem, and taking pleasure in it! Oh, I’d really want to learn, but I keep getting these problems in life. I really want to learn but I caught a cold, what a nuisance. It’s standing in the way of my service of G-d.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
- Shabbos, 105b.
- Tehillim, 81:10
- With Translation of Hebrew words into English
- From a Shiur on the Six Constant Mitzvos.
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