While HaShem revealed the Torah no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, the Ophanim stirred not a wing, the Seraphim ceased their “Holy, Holy, Holy’s,” the sea did not roar, and no creature peeped…the whole world held still in breathless silence while the voice reverberated: I AM HASHEM YOUR GOD [and spoke the Commandments that changed our world.]… (Shmot Rabba 29:9)
We Jews pride ourselves in the fact that our religion began as a collective revelation. An estimated four million people (divided into 600,000 family units) simultaneously experienced a direct encounter with the infinite One.1 A searing revelation of Presence engraved the souls of an entire nation with the-truth-of-the-universe compressed into a single burst of light. Its impact continues to impel their generations to be seekers and servants of G‑d, and is certain to do so till the end of time.
Tradition teaches that each family that exited Egypt embodied a root soul, one of 600,000 that comprise the pool of neshamot incarnating, generation after generation, as the Israelite nation. Every Jew from that point onward embodies a different sliver of one of those 600,000 root souls—actualizing a drop of its potential through the odyssey of his or her life.
This means that every Jewish soul carries a memory trace of that Sinaic encounter. And it is partly because of this—because we heard it with our own “ears” so to speak—that we are bound by the covenant that was sealed that day. Somewhere, deep down, our soul remembers that earth-shaking event and the obligations it undertook at the mountain’s base.
But wait! The fact is we only committed to 10 Commandments that day. How did our obligations mushroom into 613?
Our sages explain that, in fact, all of the mitzvot are included in those original ten.2 One proof is that the Ten Commandments contain 620 letters corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot plus 7 rabbinic commands.
But it’s even more complicated than that, for our own history attests that we actually only heard the first two commandments direct from HaShem.3 Their revelation was so intense we feared for our lives—our souls flew from our bodies at each word. HaShem revived us with His resurrecting dew, the same drops He will use to restore souls to bodies in the end of days. We “died” over sixty times in those first two commandments. It was just too much, and finally we begged Moshe to be our intermediary and relay the message to us.
Even so, says the Oral Tradition, these first two Commandments, themselves, are comprehensive—every other mitzvah is simply a detail of how to fulfill one of these all-inclusive two. The First Commandment which declares the fact of God’s existence is the root of all the “248 positive directives,” those that require us “to do” a certain act of service. The Second Commandment, which forbids the worship of idols, is the root of all “365 negative commandants” that instruct us to abstain from a specific wrong-action. And really, says the midrash, both the positive and the negative are contained within the first one. If we really understood what it means that G‑d is one, as expressed through the First Commandment, our instinctive and reflexive response to the world would always accord with spiritual law—we would naturally and spontaneously choose the high road including any mitzvah relevant to the moment.
And so, the entire Torah is contained within the first commandment, which is not actually a command at all, but a declaration of truth: “I am HaShem your G‑d who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” Every Jewish soul heard these words straight from their Creator. And according to R. Tsadok HaKohen, the prophesy emanated from within and was vocalized through our very own voice box.4
The world was completely still when this truth-that-contains-all-other-truths was revealed. There could be no interference to distort its reception. The slightest static at this critical moment would garble the message for eternity. This global hush also proved that there were no dissenting views. Each creature was awed to silence when their Creator now revealed Himself as a personal G‑d—who speaks through prophesy, guides history, and demands virtue.
We took this First Commandment in as best we could but its implications were bigger than we could bear. The goal of our lives individually and collectively is to achieve an ever-deepening integration of what it means that G‑d is one. And towards this end, says the midrash, HaShem restates this fundamental truth over and over and over again. Each day HaShem rebroadcasts the First Commandment out into the world.
Why don’t we hear it? What keeps us from taking it in? The Sod Yesharim explains that we must reproduce the original conditions of its revelation. We must designate a time in our day to quiet our thoughts and cease activity. If we want to receive the First Commandment into our heart, bones, cells and spaces then we have no choice but to hush the static. And the tool for quieting chatter is meditation (in one form or another). If HaShem bothers to reiterate the First Commandment each day then we need to make the silent space to hear His message.
Let it be on this Shavuot, as the Torah is revealed anew, that we draw its precious teachings deep inside our souls. May it inspire an abundance of good deeds, joyful study, loving prayer and fruitful silence. And may the transformation born from this service radiate to the outskirts of the world. And may the Torah’s holy lights resolve the schism between truth and peace, and in so doing, bring Mashiach now.
Exodus 19: 6-20:15
2 Num. Rabbah 13:16; R. Saadia Gaon, Azharot; Rashi, Ex. 24:12.
3 Makkot 24a, Rashi Shmot 19:19
4 Tsidkat HaTsadik 193.