Belief and Reaching our Potential

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro, so named after Moses’ father in law. The beginning of the portion tells how Yitro (in English Jethro) reunites Moses with his wife and children after the incident at the Red Sea. After the reunion the portion continues with the preparation for the revelation at Mt. Sinai and presentation of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.

There is a disagreement in our legal literature concerning the Ten Commandments. The questions, simply put is “is the first commandment really a commandment?” The statement in question is, “I am The Lord your God….” Is this a commandment or a statement?

The question is not a specious one. Like most Talmudic arguments there is a deeper issue being debated. If that first statement is a commandment then belief in God is a Mitzvah and not subject to question. If however, it is a preamble to the other commandments then it is a foundational sentence which is used to justify the commandments.

Thus we ask, are we commanded to believe in God or is that belief optional? If the foundation of our Judaism is built upon custom, community and ethics does that form an acceptable alternative to belief?

There is no substitute for belief. Belief is a stable anchor that holds us together and helps us weather events both good and bad. It provides a frame for our lives and meaning to our actions. But, I believe the rabbis also recognized that belief cannot be the only reason for our loyalty and commitment. Why else would Judaism be a tradition that concentrates on “what” we do and not “why” we do it. We are judged by our actions not our intentions.

I could not live without my belief — but we can not survive unless it is our actions that are the basis of judgment.  That is the message of Yom Kippur — and I believe one of many messages in this portion.

Which brings us back to Yitro. Is it coincidental that the revelation at Sinai follows Moses’ reunion with his family? Or is it another message — that we cannot fully reach our potential without the love and support of those closest to us?