The meaning of ‘Lei’da sh’yaish sham Elokah’


Yitro is preeminently the parasha of the Asseret Hadibrot. The first of these statements begins with the famous words, “I am the L-rd your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  Nearly all the monei hamitzvot (categorizers of the mitzvot) follow the opinion of the Rambam and include this as the first of the 248 Positive Commandments.

In his prologue to Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, the Rambam reiterates that “lei’da sh’yaish sham Elokah (to know that there is G-d),” is a mitzvah, and presents the following textual amplification: The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know (lei’da) that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being.

What does the Rambam mean when he asserts that in order to fulfill this mitzvah we must know “there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence.” Is knowing in this context a synonym for understanding? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) clearly thinks otherwise:

“I do not agree with those who interpret ‘to know’ as meaning ‘to understand,’ indicating that each and every Jew would have to philosophize and investigate for himself all that is relevant to the existence of G-d. …

“We cannot ‘understand’ the Almighty – His quality is hidden and unfathomable — and in this Rambam concurred with the Kabbalists who asserted that ‘No intellect can apprehend Him’.”

Since, as the Rav notes, “we cannot ‘understand’ the Almighty — His quality is hidden and unfathomable,” what does “lei’da sh’yaish sham Elokah” connote in practice? Fortunately, the Rav provides a clear analysis of this phrase, explaining that our conviction of the existence of G-d should become a constant and continuous awareness of the reality of G-d, a level of consciousness never marred by inattention, one that should constitute the foundation of our thoughts, ideas, and emotions in every situation and under all conditions.

The Rav’s explanation of lei’da in reference to the existence of the Almighty is reminiscent of the pasuk we recite at the conclusion of the first paragraph of the Aleinu: “And you shall know (v’ya’da’ta) this day and consider it in your heart, that the L-rd He is G-d in Heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none other.”

With Hashem’s help, and our fervent desire, may this verse be our watchword as we strive to know Hashem. V’chane yihi ratzon.