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yesh omrim

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Here comes the Judge

19 February 2004

The Ten Commandments begins: “I am the Eternal, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the domain of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Some medieval commentators were bothered by this introduction. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for God to introduce Himself as the creator of the whole universe, instead?

No, it wouldn’t be.

Suppose you bought new Ford car, and after a few years driving it, you discover the owner’s manual in the glove compartment. Flipping through the manual, you come across a warning message: “Do not drive this car to any Chevrolet dealership.” If you would feel morally bound by this restriction, because it was imposed on you by the creator of your vehicle, then you might be qualified for a job as a medieval theologian. If not … you see the problem. Yeah, God created the universe, and now He doesn’t want me to light a fire on Saturday. Why should I care what He wants? This is where the Exodus comes in.

A few verses before the burning bush, “the Israelites were groaning from their slavery, and they cried out (vayiz`aku); their pleas from their slavery went up before God” (2:23). The root z-`-k only appears in one other place in the Chumash, namely, God’s description of the situation in Sodom: “The outcry (za`akat) of Sodom and Gomorrah is very great” (Genesis 18:20). In both places, people are not merely crying out from pain; they are crying out because they are being treated unjustly; in response, God executes judgment on their oppressors.

Through our cries, we acknowledged God’s role, not as Creator, but as Judge. Having done so, it would be hypocritical for us to say “OK, you were right to trash the Egyptians, thank you very much, but you shouldn’t punish us for not doing what you want.” The Israelites in the desert, even when they sinned, understood this principle. Except perhaps for the golden-calf incident, they never said, “We’re glad to be out of Egypt, but we’re going to defy God’s commandments anyway.” Whenever they rebelled against Moses, they talked about going back to Egypt—denying that salvation from Pharoah had given them any benefit.