In these troubling weeks, I feel myself nagged and bothered by the first commandment, those simple words ‘I am the Lord your God’. They stalk me, stare out at me, echo back at me from everything I encounter.
I saw that commandment when I passed a young man sleeping rough on the street. I heard it when I spoke with my friend Okito, the leader of the Congolese community in London. I even see it when I look out at the goldfinches on the bird feeder. I know I’m going hear it again, loudly, when I visit at the local hospital. And these days I feel I overhear the words weeping almost every time I look at the newspaper.
What stalks me is the sense of my personal, and our collective, failure; what haunts me is a sense of shame.
How can one be stalked by ‘I am the Lord your God’? After all, it’s only a sentence. It isn’t even really a commandment (and some theologians don’t count it among the ten in the Decalogue). ‘I am the Lord your God’ doesn’t even ask us to do anything. The words are merely the preamble. Specific instructions follow: ‘Don’t murder’, ‘Don’t steal’, ‘Don’t be faithless in relationships’. But ‘I am your God’ is not itself a command.
Or is it?
There are two ways (at least) to read it. One can take it as saying ‘Tick this box’. Agree to this about how the world is’. An alternative box is ‘I’m an atheist’, or ‘I don’t care’. Of course, which box we tick in our heads is important. Though I’m nervous of people whose boxes are ticked only in their heads; there’s always the danger they’ll go to war with people whose boxes are different.
It’s the other way of hearing the first commandment which haunts me. If there is one God, one vitality, one community of life which connects us all and to which we all belong, vast and varied as that community is, then the words ‘I am the Lord your God’ cry out at us from every living thing.
They call to us from the person sleeping rough. They cry to us from the woman deported back to a country where she fears for her life. They appeal to us from the Jew afraid because of hate threats to go outside with a kippah. They weep from every wound, every injury and every wrong inflicted on our fellow human beings and nature itself.
They say to us ‘I, God, am here too, in this hurt and this injustice’. They say at the same time, ‘I, God, am here in this beauty, in this creativity, in this potential goodness of all life’. They say, ‘You there, walking past, do you hear me? I am the sacred in all life. I speak in everything around you, and in your heart. Are you listening? Are you there?’
That’s how the Rabbi of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, understood that First Commandment: ‘God spoke and created all things, so that they say: “I am the Lord your God”’.
How then can I, how can we, how can leaders and governments across the world, be callous, unjust, cruel, careless, heedless, selfish?
The First Commandment is really the first half of a question: I am the Lord your God, God of all life – And you, where are you?