THE FIRST COMMANDMENT

February 5th, 2015

I was exposed to two extremes this week. The difference between them could not be more marked, yet they both served to remind me of one powerful truth, and I want to share that with you.

The first was an interview given by British actor Stephen Fry to Irish TV’s veteran presenter, Gay Byrne. Byrne, a devoted catholic, asked Fry, an avowed atheist, what he would say to God if he found himself in front of Him.

The usually urbane Fry launched into an emotional tirade, during which he called the God he doesn’t believe in “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”, and worse, for having created a world so full of injustice and pain.

Within three days, the YouTube clip of this particular segment had been viewed over three million times.

Fry’s argument against God’s existence is the most emotionally compelling of all atheist claims, as anyone who has experienced pain or watched others go through inexplicable suffering will know. In those situations even the most faithful believers ask themselves how it is that God created a world filled with such undeserved suffering.

For the atheist that problem simply doesn’t exist. There is no need to explain suffering if there is no God – suffering can be understood as just one chance part of a vast and random universe.

The second extreme was the horrific video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive by murderous ISIS beasts somewhere in Syria. The sheer cruelty of the execution was the stuff of nightmares, too appalling to absorb. But this was not a snuff movie, or Hollywood special effects. This was a real person, being staged by his captors for what was certainly the most widely observed public execution in the history of human existence, a man burnt to death by killers who claim to represent the will of God on Earth.

To make it worse, these brutes joyously reveled in his pain and suffering. And yet every one of those ISIS butchers prostates himself five times a day and proclaims his singular devotion to Allah. They observe strict sharia law, and believe their religion mandates – demands – the merciless execution of their enemies.

Who is not thinking to themselves as they watch such a video: is this what it means to believe in God? Can God really exist if these are His devoted followers?

Any religious person who dismisses these questions, or sidesteps them, or trivializes them, imply demonstrates that he or she does not have confidence in their own beliefs. I, for one, did not end up as a God-believer because I happened to be born into a God-believing family, although this certainly gave me a head start.

I believe in God because His existence leaps out at me from every intricate detail of nature and from the inexhaustible ingenuity of science.

I believe in God because I am overawed by the incredible complexity of factors that enables life to exist and to perpetuate, and because I marvel at the fact that so much of humanity longs to be unselfish when selfishness seems to permeate the hard drive of creation’s motherboard.

Consequently, the difficult questions posed by Stephen Fry cut into me like a knife, and the wickedness of so-called religious Muslims who rejoice in their heinous atrocities feels like a personal attack.

Theologians of every religion have addressed these questions over millennia, Jewish theologians among them.

The Talmudic sages and many subsequent rabbinic scholars attempted to offer explanations for the world’s ceaseless suffering, and the seemingly perpetual presence of evil within human society, with no distinction between those who profess to believe in God and those who reject Him.

Ultimately, however, there seems to be no satisfying answers. Every answer theologians come up with rings hollow if one imagines addressing it to the relative of a suffering or murdered loved one, or to someone in the midst of indescribable pain.

And I believe it is this challenge that is behind the wording of the first of the Ten Commandments:

אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם  ‘I am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt’.

Where is the commandment? The words convey information, but seem to demand nothing. For this reason, the author of Halakhot Gedolot, an early medieval rabbi who enumerated the 613 mitzvot, did not regard this statement as a commandment, but as an essential prerequisite to every commandment.

If one performs a charitable deed, or observes the Shabbat, or refrains from non-kosher food, without first engaging this prerequisite, he says, one has entirely missed the point. For if it is true that the existence of life is merely the result of selfish instinct, but one nonetheless opts to behave unselfishly, or to observe rituals that are testing, while at the same time acknowledging God as the ultimate cause of our ability and desire to do so, we are transcending meaninglessness, and infusing every act of one’s life with meaningful purpose.

Acknowledging God and believing in Him is not merely heeding a Divine commandment. If it were that, the opening line of the Ten Commandments would have been delivered as a commandment, not as a proclamation. Evidently, with this statement, God revealed the most powerful truth of all. He told us simply: ‘I exist’.

We must absorb that information into every fiber of our being, for if we do not, we will inevitably find countless reasons to reject God, whether as a result of blameless suffering, or the wickedness of those who purport to act in His name, or for some other reason.

To overcome these faith-challenging realities requires a level of unshakeable faith in God that only a statement of fact can ensure.

Photo: Breaking News – Jordanian pilot burned alive by ISIS

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