In the previous chapters the Alter Rebbe discussed the Torah’s assertion that “it is very near” to us to fulfill all the commandments with a love and fear of G‑d. He explained that it is indeed “very near,” by means of the natural love of G‑d inherent in every Jew. He further stated that this love stems from the faculty of Chochmah of the divine soul, in which the light of the Ein Sof is clothed. This love is the source of a Jew’s power of self-sacrifice; it is what inspires every Jew, regardless of spiritual stature, to forfeit his life rather than deny G‑d’s unity. In fact, were a Jew to feel that sin tears him away from G‑d, he would never sin — his love of G‑d and his fear of separation from Him would not permit it. It is only the “spirit of folly” inspired by the kelipah — the self-delusion that sin does not weaken his attachment to G‑d — that allows him to sin. But when he is confronted with an attempt to coerce him to practice idolatry, for example, no such delusion is possible; clearly he is being torn away from G‑d. Thereupon, a Jew’s inherent love of G‑d is aroused, and even the most hardened sinner willingly suffers martyrdom for his faith in the One G‑d.

This same power of self-sacrifice, says the Alter Rebbe, can enable a Jew to refrain from every transgression, and to fulfill all the commandments. But if, in fact, only a clear challenge to one’s faith — such as idolatry — arouses and activates one’s hidden love, how can this love serve to motivate one’s observance of all the commandments? The Alter Rebbe begins to provide the answer in this chapter by explaining the relationship of all the positive commandments to the precept of belief in G‑d’s unity (stated in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am G‑d your L‑rd”), and of all the prohibitive commandments to the prohibition of idolatry (the second commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall have no other gods…”).

והנה מודעת זאת לכל כי מצות ואזהרת עבודה זרה, שהם שני דברות הראשונים, אנכי, ולא יהיה לך, הם כללות כל התורה כולה

It is well known that the [positive] commandment to believe in G‑d’s unity, and the admonition concerning idolatry, which form the first two commandments in the Decalogue:1 “I am G‑d…” and “You shall have no other gods…,” comprise the entire Torah.

כי דבור אנכי כולל כל רמ״ח מצות עשה, ולא יהיה לך כולל כל שס״ה מצות לא תעשה

For the commandment “I am G‑d” contains all the 248 positive precepts, while the commandment “You shall have no other gods” contains all the 365 prohibitive commandments.2

ולכן שמענו אנכי ולא יהיה לך לבד מפי הגבורה, כמאמר רז״ל: מפני שהם כללות התורה כולה

That is why we heard only these two commandments, “I am…,” and “You shall not have…,” directly from G‑d, while the other eight commandments were transmitted by Moses, as our Sages have said,3 for they are the sum total of the whole Torah.

Thus, we actually heard the entire Torah from G‑d Himself; for all the commandments are contained within these two, as are particulars within a generalization. Therefore just as one’s love of G‑d motivates him to obey these two commandments even at the expense of his life, it may also serve to motivate him to observe all the commandments.

However, this concept requires further clarification. Why should all the positive precepts be considered as affirmations of G‑d’s unity, and why should all the prohibitions be manifestations of idol-worship? It is readily understood that belief in G‑d is the basis of all the commandments. The Mechilta4 illustrates this idea by the parable of a king who entered a land, and was requested by the populace to provide them with a system of laws. To this the king replied: “First accept me as your king; afterwards I will issue my decrees.” In the same way, belief in the One G‑d constitutes the foundation upon which all the other commandments are built. But why should the two commandments regarding G‑d’s unity be considered the sum total of the entire Torah, all the other commandments being merely an extension of them?

The explanation is based on a deeper understanding of the concept of the unity of G‑d. G‑d’s unity means not only that there is but one Creator, but that G‑d is the only existing being. All of existence is absolutely nullified before Him, and completely one with Him. Therefore when one acts in defiance of G‑d’s Will as expressed in the commandments, he sets himself apart from G‑d as though he were a separate and independent entity. This constitutes a denial of G‑d’s unity, and the transgressor is therefore considered an idolator. This the Alter Rebbe now explains in detail.

ולבאר היטב ענין זה צריך להזכיר תחלה בקצרה ענין ומהות אחדותו של הקב״ה שנקרא יחיד ומיוחד

In order to elucidate this matter clearly, we must first briefly speak of the idea and the essence of the unity of G‑d, Who is called “One and Unique.”

I.e., we must understand the essential meaning of this phrase, which lends itself to various interpretations: that there is only one G‑d, one Creator; that He is one Being, not a compound of various powers; and so on.

וכל מאמינים שהוא לבדו הוא כמו שהיה קודם שנברא העולם ממש

All believe that He is One Alone5 now, after creation, exactly as He was before the world was created, when He was [obviously] alone since nothing else had yet come into being, so too now after creation, nothing exists apart from Him.

וכמו שכתוב: אתה הוא עד שלא נברא העולם, אתה הוא משנברא כו׳

As it is written in the prayer book:6 “You are He Who was before the world was created, and You are He Who is since the world was created.”

If the meaning of this passage were only that G‑d is eternal, without beginning or end, it could have been stated simply: “You were before the world was created…”; why the circumlocution of “You are He Who was before the world was created…”?

פירוש: הוא ממש בלי שום שינוי, כדכתיב: אני ה׳ לא שניתי

This emphasis provided by the repeated phrase, “You are He who.” means: “You are exactly the same ‘He’ before and after creation, without any change,” as it is written:7 “I, the L‑rd, have not changed” since creation. G‑d is still One alone despite the presence of myriad beings, as the Alter Rebbe goes on to explain.

כי עולם הזה וכן כל העולמות העליונים אינם פועלים שום שינוי באחדותו יתברך בהבראם מאין ליש

For this world, and likewise all the supernal worlds, do not effect any change in His unity by their having been created out of a state of nothingness.

שכמו שהיה הוא לבדו הוא יחיד ומיוחד קודם הבראם, כן הוא לבדו הוא יחיד ומיוחד אחר שבראם, משום דכולא קמיה כלא חשיב וכאין ואפס ממש

Just as G‑d was One alone, single and unique, before they were created, so is He One alone, single and unique, after He created them.

How can it be so? What of all the creatures that exist besides Him?

Yet it is so, because all is as naught beside Him, as if absolutely nonexistent.

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to clarify this point. His explanation in brief: All of creation came about through the Word of G‑d. As we see with man, one word has no value whatever next to his power of speech, which has the capacity to allow him to go on speaking endlessly.

It has even less value compared to one’s power of thought, the source of speech; and next to the soul itself, whence derive both thought and speech, one word (or even many words) is certainly a nonentity. How much more so, then, that in comparison with G‑d who is infinite, His Word, which represents His creative and animative powers, is as totally nonexistent.

What follows is a lengthy exposition of this concept, which is carried over into the next chapter.

כי התהוות כל העולמות עליונים ותחתונים מאין ליש, וחיותם וקיומם המקיימם שלא יחזרו להיות אין ואפס כשהיה

For the coming into being of all the upper and lower worlds out of nothingness, and their life and their existence, i.e., that [force] which sustains them so that they do not revert to nothingness and naught, as they were before they were created—

For unlike the product of a human craftsman, which (if left undisturbed) will remain in exactly the same state and shape as it was when it left the hands of the craftsman, the continued existence of creation is dependent on the constant renewal of the creative power. Were this power to cease, all of creation would revert to nothingness. This force, which animates and sustains the existence of all creation —

אינו אלא דבר ה׳ ורוח פיו יתברך המלובש בהם

is nothing other than the Word of G‑d and the8 “breath of His mouth” that is clothed in these worlds.