Commandment #1: The illusion of control

Okay. We did it.  Here we are at the very last episode of our series on the Ten Commandments. And I know what you’re thinking…I’ve been gaslighting you, this whole time.

See I just casually started this whole thing backwards…with Commandment #10, then #9, then #8. And there’s a good reason for that. I didn’t want to start with Commandment #1. I’ve been avoiding it. Because Commandment #1 is about…God.

Well, all of the Commandments, in one way or another, are about God. But #1 is, like, really really about God. It’s the commandment to know that, “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

And God is…tricky…It’s hard to talk about God. It’s even a little risky. For one, the very term God has got so much baggage, and not the luggage kind. The term has undergone millenia of use (and mis-use).

I have many friends who have that cliche image of God of the man in the sky with the long beard casting lightning bolts from the sky. And they don’t have great associations with that image. 

But also…it’s hard to talk about God because our knowledge of and relationship to God is such a personal thing. 

You know, according to some opinions, including Rashi, the most quoted commentator on the Torah, most of the commandments we’ve been discussing were given to the Jewish people by God through Moshe.

That’s because, according to tradition, the intensity of the revelation was just too much for the people to handle. But the first commandment was one of the few that was given directly to the Jewish people by God, despite the intense physical ordeal that it entailed.

And the reason that I heard for this was simple but kind of amazing: When it comes to belief in God, no other human being can serve that up for you on a silver platter. No one can mediate that experience for you. You’ve got to experience it yourself.

The 13th-century French rabbi and Bible commentator Chizkuni, (Rabbi Chizkiah ben Manoach) points out that the commandment is Anochi Hashem Elokecha. “I am the Lord your God.”

Elokecha means your God in the singular form, as opposed to Elokeichem, which would mean “your” in the plural form. God spoke to each and every individual, personally. Again — belief in God, it’s a very personal thing. 

So, as we arrive at this last commandment in our series, the first of the Ten Commandments, really the best I can do is to tell you how I think about God, on a personal level. 

And to do that I’ll start with…to-do lists. You see, I am and always have been a little obsessed with the art of productivity and time management. 

I am embarrassed to admit how many books I have read on the topic. And I am even more embarrassed to admit all of the tips and tricks and techniques that I’ve tried based on the reading of said books. 

There’s the Inbox Zero method for meticulously keeping my email under control, and there’s the Pomodoro Method to chunk out my work time. 

There’s Asana to organize the various domains of my life and the tasks within them. (Yes, I reached out to Asana to sponsor this video, and they declined, so use Trello or Monday.com, see what I care!) 

And there’s the calendar. Ah, yes, the calendar. In my life, everything goes on the calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it just doesn’t happen.

(And, yes my wife does roll her eyes when I schedule 30-minute blocks for “meaningful conversation.” But at least when it’s on the calendar we know for sure it’s going to happen!)

And of course, let’s not forget the simple, mighty, essential to-do list. To me, there simply is no feeling in the world like crossing an item off a to-do list, the rush of seeing that progress, checking off a task. 

But here’s the thing. Despite all of these fancy techniques, productivity and time-management still — more often than not — feels like a losing game. 

In fact, there seems to be some kind of cruel paradox at play. The more fixated you become on getting it all done — and the more infrastructure you put in place to do so — the more you get the nagging sense that you are on a fool’s errand. That you’ll never get a handle on it all. 

Why? I think the answer lies in why we productivity nerds do all this stuff in the first place. What’s really driving this obsession? And the answer, in a word, is control. 

We sense the utter chaos that is the world around us. The fickle nature of our environment. The threats and dangers that lurk. The forces at play that are beyond our control. 

And in a desperate effort to feel safe, we try to create the illusion of control wherever we can. If I can just clear my inbox and schedule my calendar to the T, I’ll be okay. I’ll be safe. It’s not just time management. 

I’ve got a friend who is a neat-freak. There isn’t a speck of dust in her home that is out of place. And when I asked her how she got this way, she told me that she had a very chaotic childhood. And that from a young-age, keeping her room tidy was the one area of control she could count on in her life. 

But whether we’re a neat freak or a productivity nerd or whatever else…deep down, we know that we’re not really in control. And that we’ll never be.

And for me…this is it. It’s inside of this realization, right at the nexus of trying to control and understanding the futility of that endeavor — that is where I experience God. 

To believe in God is, at the end of the day, to embrace the reality of your lack of ultimate control. The belief in God is the belief that you are not the ultimate decider. There is value in trying, of course. And putting in effort.

In Hebrew, that is called hishtadlut. But hishtadlut is always counterbalanced by the notion of bitachon, faith or trust.

Again, faith is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but in this vein, faith means returning, again and again and again, to the realization that our effort is important, but not the be-all and the end-all. It’s not fail-safe. Not even close. 

And the spiritual journey — the journey to God — is the journey to embracing that fact. One of the most famous disagreements in the Talmud has to do with the holiday of Sukkot. 

Sukkot is the holiday in which we spend seven days eating and hanging out in a Sukkah. And the Torah tells us that the Jewish people sat in these “sukkahs” in the desert when they left Egypt.

Now, here’s the famous disagreement. Rabbi Eliezer thought that these Sukkahs were ananeni hakavod, supernatural, far-out clouds of glory that would protect the Jewish people. 

But Rabbi Akiva disagrees. No fireworks or special effects, in his view. To him, the sukkot were just…huts. Simple, little, flimsy huts.

In other words, on Sukkot, we leave our seemingly sturdy homes and step into a simple hut. Instead of a sturdy roof over our head, we sit under the schach, which is just some loose and flimsy foliage.

We purposefully, intentionally, step outside of the illusion of control. To me, that is the essence of spirituality, right there in that choice to leave the home and enter the hut. 

When we relinquish our sense of control, there are two things that can happen. 

One is that we can get really scared. We can feel alone, and afraid, and vulnerable as we relinquish the control we hoped we could have. Suddenly, the full force of the threats and dangers of the world around us becomes apparent. 

But there’s something else that can happen when we give up control. Paradoxically, we can feel quite liberated. We can unburden ourselves of the need to control for every outcome in the world.

And we can make room for something larger than ourselves. Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am the Lord, your God, is the first commandment for a reason. 

It’s telling us that before you can get to any of the commandments, the dos and don’ts, the religious prescriptions for life that emanate from God — you have to first make room for that God. To get out of your own way, and surrender to a force much bigger than you. 

That is what this commandment means to me, what does it mean to you?

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