Is it a Mitzvah?
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
The first of the ten utterances states: “I am the Lord your God, who extricated you from the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20,2)
Maimonides (Rambam) understands this utterance to be one of the 613 commandments of the Torah. He states: “The first mitzvah is that we are commanded to acquire knowledge of the nature of G-d’s existence, i.e. to understand that He is the original cause and source of existence who brings all creations into being. The source of this commandment is G-d’s statement (exalted be He), ‘I am G-d your Lord.'” (Sefer Hamitzvot) It is clear from the above that to Maimonides there is a mitzvah to believe in a supreme being (God).
Other great commentators (such as Baal Hilchot Gedolot) disagree with Maimonides. They explain that the concept of a commandment is premised on the clear understanding that there is a commander. Put in simpler terms, only once a king takes power can he make decrees. Similarly, the belief in God is the essential idea that forms the basis for a commandment (mitzvah). Therefore, a command to believe in God is illogical because without the concept of God, there cannot be commandment. This logical analysis seems iron clad and a very strong question on the opinion of Maimonides.
Rabbi Chananya Kazis, the chief Rabbi of Florence, Italy in the 17th century, offers a solution to the above question on Maimonides. His answer has tremendous practical application to our lives. He explains that having experienced the great miracles involved in the Exodus from Egypt as well as the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people’s belief in God’s existence was tremendous. At the Sinai revelation, God commands the nation to ensure that they maintain that high level of faith to future generations. It is not easy to maintain our faith in God at such a high level. Life’s difficulties and challenges tend to diminish the belief in a supreme God from our minds. We are constantly commanded to strengthen our belief and connection to God. I would add to Rabbi Kazis’ explanation that the belief in God is not a ‘binary switch–belief in God is a spectrum. While involved in business and worldly matters, it is very easy for us to lose our composure. This, in and of itself, shows a diminished belief in a supreme God, a God constantly looking out for our best interests, and a God that is completely in control. We are commanded to constantly remind ourselves of God’s existence and presence in our lives as well as to work on climbing the ladder towards greater belief and connection to our Father in heaven.