God concludes this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 13:1-15:41) with the words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God” (Num. 15:41). Commenting on this verse, the midrashic work Sifre asks, “Why is the phrase ‘I am the Lord your God’ repeated in this verse? After all, the phrase already appears earlier in the verse, as it is written, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God.’ So why is the phrase repeated?” (Sifre, Numbers, section 115).
Sifre’s surprising answer is this: “So that Israel will not say, ‘Why did God declare “I am the Lord your God”’? Perhaps the answer is that God is telling us that if we don’t perform the commandments, the only result will be that we won’t receive any reward. That is acceptable; we won’t perform the commandments and won’t receive any reward.’”
God is promising Israel that, if they perform his commandments, he will protect them. Thus, people might think that they have free will; they might assume that they can simply not carry out the commandments and the only consequence will be that they will not be rewarded. But to prevent people from coming to such an incorrect conclusion, the verse repeats the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.”
Why, then, do the sages regard this verse as an answer to those who wish to exempt themselves from the obligation of performing God’s commandments and are thus ready to forgo any reward? The connection can be seen in the same midrash’s reference to the Book of Ezekiel: “One can see a parallel in the scene where Israel seek Ezekiel’s help: ‘And it came to pass in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me’ (Ezekiel 20:1).”
Ezekiel 20 depicts how the elders of Israel come to the eponymous prophet, who resides in Babylon, in order to “inquire of the Lord.” God turns to Ezekiel and, through him, castigates the elders. By means of Ezekiel’s mouth, God describes Jewish history as a chronicle of rebellion in which he chooses Israel and informs them “I am the Lord your God” (Ezek. 20:5).
The divine narrative includes references to the Exodus from Egypt and to the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land, as well as the commandment that Israel must not contaminate itself with the abominations of idolatry because, “I am the Lord your God” (Ezek. 20:7). Nonetheless, Israel disappoints God and abandons his path. Thereafter, he commands their descendants not to defile themselves with idolatry, reminding them, “I am the Lord your God” (Ezek. 20:19) – but the descendants also disobey him.
In light of this, God severely criticizes the elders, since they continue to worship idols, and he declares, “And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all; in that ye say: We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be king over you” (Ezek. 20:32-33).
In both the above verses, from this week’s Torah reading and from Ezekiel, the same phrase – “I am the Lord your God” – is used: In the former, it appears twice; in the latter, three times (Ezekiel 20:5,7,19). In Ezekiel, the purpose of the rhetorical repetition is clear: God rebukes Israel for having forgotten him and for disobeying his commandments. Now, he declares that he will rule over Israel “with fury poured out” – contrary to their wishes.
From what is explicitly stated in Ezekiel, the sages deduce what is being conveyed in the verse from this week’s reading and conclude that, toward its end, the phrase “I am the Lord your God” is repeated to remind the Children of Israel that they cannot simply say, “That’s okay, we won’t perform the commandments and won’t receive any reward.” This is meant to remind Israel that God is unwilling to accept the idea of anyone disobeying his commandments and that, ultimately, he will impose his rule on those who seek to rebel.
During God’s monologue, as heard from Ezekiel’s mouth, the elders are not permitted to utter even a single sentence. In the above midrash, however, the sages tell us what the elders stated in response to God’s arguments: “They said to him: Ezekiel, if a master sells a slave, the slave ceases to be under his control, correct? Ezekiel replied: Yes. They then continued: Similarly, since God sold us to the nations of the world, we have ceased to be under his control. Ezekiel responded: If a master sells a slave so that the latter will return to him some day, can we say that the slave ceases to be under the master’s control when he is sold? As it is written, ‘And that which cometh into your mind [shall not be at all] As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand [and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be king over you] [Ezek. 20:32-33].’
“The words ‘with a mighty hand’ refer to the plague of pestilence, ‘with an outstretched arm’ refers to the sword, and ‘with fury poured out’ refers to famine. God says: After I bring upon you three disasters, I will then rule over you against your wishes. That is the reason for the phrase ‘I am the Lord your God’ – that is, against your wishes” (Sifre, Numbers, section 115).
In the sages’ eyes, the elders open their mouths, admitting they have abandoned God but claiming he had previously sold them to the nations of the world. Ezekiel corrects them, arguing that God did not sell them permanently but that he wants them back. The evidence for this argument can be found in the fury exhibited by God, who insists on continuing to be the master of his slaves – against their express will.
Ezekiel lived in the period of the First Temple exile and rebukes the elders of Israel for their having abandoned God. However, in the sages’ autobiographical reading, the periods of Israel’s exile are interwoven. The mouthpiece given to the First Temple exiles in their argument with God and their accusation that it is he who abandoned them echoes the feelings of the sages, who are Second Temple exiles.
“Granted, we have abandoned you, God,” claim the sages, through the mouths of the elders, the First Temple exiles, “however, you first sold us to the nations of the world.” The sages identify with the exiles of Babylon, who abandoned God, claiming that he first abandoned them. Expressing their distress, the exiled elders present the fallacious position, “We won’t perform the commandments and won’t receive any reward. Since you, God, sold us to the nations of the world and since you reward those who perform your commandments – we prefer not to perform them and not to receive any reward from you.”
This radical argument is not a surprising one for the sages, given their harsh reality as belonging to an oppressed minority that is living under a cruel regime and feels that its master, God, has sold it to the nations of the world. The sages, citing the above verse from this week’s Torah portion and linking it with the Book of Ezekiel, find both an opportunity to argue before God that he has sold them and a response to their argument. God will reimpose his rule over them because they no longer have the faith, power or motivation needed to obey his commandments, for which they are to received only a delayed reward.
Moreover, God will hit them with three catastrophes – pestilence, the sword and famine – and will then rule over Israel against its wishes. In this way, the sages find meaning for their own grim physical reality and interpret it as a necessary prelude to God’s promised return: “That is the reason for the phrase ‘I am the Lord your God’ – that is, against your wishes.”