Off the Pulpit

The First Mitzvah and the Last

In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first is believing in God. The last is a king not amassing great personal wealth.

In a certain way, those two commandments, one positive and one negative, are intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning and the end of the first and last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire prayer (Berachot 34b).

Ego is integral to our characters and its distortions common to our struggles. It pushes us to do things and even want things that higher impulses warm against. As the world recognizes the eminence of an individual – priest, prophet, sage, king, or in our day, politician, tycoon, star, athlete – the temptation to self-aggrandizement grows greater.

Acknowledging that we are human and ephemeral, that there is a God, infinitely greater than ourselves, helps induce the humility that remind us not to overestimate our own gifts and accomplishments. The first and last mitzvah tie together to remind us – achievement is worthy; arrogance is outrageous.