Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
24 Shevat 5776
Doing Before Understanding - Na'asei V'nishmah
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah Portion: II Kings 12:1-17
The ISJL Taste of Torah periodically features contributions from members of the ISJL Staff. This week's drash comes from Arielle Nissenblatt, a Second Year Fellow in our Education Department.
It's good advice never to sign on the dotted line before reading the fine print. Contracts exist for a reason: they show each side what exactly they're agreeing to. Signing without realizing what you're signing up for can be a dangerous proposition. And yet, we've all signed agreements without a close reading of the terms and conditions. The Torah doesn't give explicit instructions on how to handle the latest iTunes download, but it does offer some guiding principles--both when dealing with corporations, and also with people.
Before we can dive into the exciting world of End User License Agreements, we need to check in with the Israelites. We are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai as a nation. Last week we heard the Ten Commandments. This week we receive many, many more. In fact, the name of the parashah-Mishpatim-literally means "laws." Imagine a nation-over one million people strong-standing at the foot of a mountain in the middle of the desert, listening to Moses list the laws that will form the basis of their community.[i] And the list goes on for a while. They range from "You shall not tolerate a sorceress" (Exodus 22:17) to "When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him" (Exodus 23:4). Once Moses completes the reading of the laws, the Israelites respond in a surprising way: The Israelites, after hearing the laws, say "na'asei v'nishmah," which roughly translates to "we will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7).
This ordering seems counterintuitive-wouldn't we expect that they should hear before they do? How can you agree to something before you know what it is?
Our commentators offer a few interpretations to help us understand this verse. Ibn Ezra explains that "we will do everything that is written down, and we will constantly hear them in that they will never be forgotten from our mouths."[ii] This understanding suggests that the utterance "we will do and we will hear" is not a cause and effect statement such as we will do and then we will hear, but rather, it is a concurrent statement, more along the lines of "we will do as we are hearing."
We also learn through Saadia Ga'on that it "is another case where the Torah is written out of chronological order, and what they really said was 'we will hear and we will do.'" For commentators like Saadia, the prospect of doing before hearing was so challenging that they suggest a total re-ordering of the verse.
But there is another way to understand why the Israelites responded the way they did. The Israelites are at a point in time where they don't really have that many options. Just a fewparshiyot ago, they were released from slavery and have been wandering ever since. Their only source of food, manna, comes from God. Their survival really depends on God; that is to say, their belief and following of God. Here they are presented with an opportunity to profess their belief and to ensure their futures by agreeing to all of God's stipulations for them as a nation. At the right time, when the right person asks you for a favor, it's pretty easy to agree, usually without even asking what the favor will be. In his commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut believes that this is a way of interpreting the passage in question in this week's parashah. The Israelites, with their newfound freedom, sustenance, and insurance of a fruitful future, are happy to agree to most anything presented to them. This is why they were so willing to accept, without even really hearing, the laws presented to them: their trust in God is absolute.
Ultimately it's this trust that serves as a guiding principle. Would you ever agree to something before knowing what it was? The answer depends on who's asking. We scroll through those endless licensing agreements without reading them not just because we need the product, but because we trust the corporation. We're usually more careful when it comes to a company with a suspect reputation, or one we have never heard of. We do the same when it comes to people--when a close friend asks for a favor, we're likely to say yes, even before finding out what it is. The stronger the relationship, the more we are willing to trust. This week, we see that the Israelite's trust in God is, for the first time, absolute. They were not naive--their trust came only after they saw the power and love of God. May we remember to balance trust with judgement: universal and unconditional trust will likely end poorly, as will trusting no one. Instead, may we find the balance between either extreme.
[i] Exodus 12:37 lists the population as 600,000, but excludes women and children. The opening chapter of Numbers contains a detailed tribal census, also limited to men over the age of 20 (Numbers 1:2-3) and arrives at a similar figure.
[ii] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 24:7.
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May you have a Sabbath of peace!
Second Year Education Fellow
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(c) 2015 Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life