“We Will Do and We Will Obey”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The narrative concerning the great Revelation that was recorded in last week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, continues in this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim.

The focus of parashat Yitro was decidedly “heavenly,” centering on the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, given by G-d directly to the People of Israel. Parashat Mishpatim focuses on the more “earthly” laws and civil legislation. Topics include: the rights of persons and property, loans and pledges, truth and justice, the Sabbatical year, and the three annual pilgrim festivals. Finally, at the end of parashat Mishpatim, in Exodus 24, the Torah returns to the theme of the Revelation, and the ratification of the Covenant.

There is a great debate among the commentators regarding the timing of the ratification of the Covenant. According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) everything recorded in the first 11 verses of Exodus 24 took place before the Ten Commandments were delivered. The fact that it is out of order is easily resolved by the Talmudic dictum (Pesachim 6b) of: “Ayn mook’dam oom’oo’char ba’Torah,” the Torah is not necessarily recorded in chronological order. Other commentators, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam for example, argue that the ratification of the Covenant took place after the Ten Commandments had been received, and that Exodus 24 is not out of chronological order.

Whether the ratification took place before or after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the story continues with Moses once again ascending the mountain and receiving the commandments that form the essence of the Book of the Covenant, (Exodus 20:19-23:33). Commanded by G-d to give these laws to the people, Moses approaches Mt. Sinai along with Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and the 70 elders. Moses, however, ascends the mountain alone and communicates to the people the words of G-d. After ratifying the Covenant with a sacrifice, Moses goes up the mountain with the leaders who then behold a Divine vision. Moses ascends the mountain even further with Joshua, and after six days of waiting, Moses alone enters the cloud, remaining there for 40 days.

Immediately before sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice, prior to entering the cloud, Moses reads to the people the details of the Covenant, so that there would be no misunderstanding or doubt about what the people were accepting. In response to hearing these details, Scripture tells us that the people announced (Exodus 24:7): “Kol ah’sher dee’ber Hashem, na’ah’seh v’nish’mah,” all that G-d has spoken we will do and obey. With this declaration, not only the elders, but every Israelite, assumed personal responsibility to carry out the will of G-d. In fact, this statement is seen by the rabbis as an indication of the people’s utmost submission to G-d and self-consecration to His Covenant. The fact that the Jews declared their resolve to do and obey whatever G-d would command even before the full extent of the commandments were known is seen by many as a virtual “anthem” of Israel’s faith in G-d and their total devotion to His word.

While Rashi, based on Onkelos (Targum Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible), translates the expression “nish’mah” as “obey,” this word may be more precisely translated as “understand.” As we say in the well-known Shema prayer, (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Shema Yisrael Hashem Eh’lo’kay’noo Hashem Eh’chad.” Although this phrase is often translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One,” it is probably more correctly translated as “Understand, O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.”

Hearing, after all, is merely the mechanical processing of noises, (in this case voices), that are translated as sounds by the brain. But that surely is not the message of “Na’ah’seh v’nish’mah,” We will do and we will hear. The people of Israel are, in effect, committing themselves to practice all of Jewish law, despite the fact that they have no knowledge of what the entire body of the law is at this point. But since they have faith in the goodness and justice of G-d, they are willing to accept whatever future commands He may impose upon them. They, in fact, boldly commit themselves to learn these laws, begin to study them in depth, and try to understand their full message and import.

The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin, 1838-1933) points out in his famed commentary on Jewish law, the Mishnah Berurah, 60:7, that there are two types of “kavanot,” two types of awareness, that a person must have when fulfilling mitzvot. There is of course, “kavanah la’tzayt bah,” an awareness that a person is fulfilling the dictates of G-d when performing a specific mitzvah. However, there is a second “kavanah,“–“kavanat ha’layv la’mitzvah atz’mah,” a sense of personal fulfillment for the performance of the specific mitzvah.

Certainly when Jews perform mitzvot they must be aware that these mitzvot are the commandments of G-d, which they are duty-bound to fulfill. There is, in fact, accountability: Reward for those who fulfill the mitzvot, and punishment for those who fail to perform the mitzvot. However, there is a second aspect to the performance of a mitzvah–a sense of personal fulfillment that comes from the actual process of performing a mitzvah. Jewish tradition mandates that every Jew should search for personal meaning in the performance of mitzvot. While performing mitzvot merely because they are the fulfillment of the bidding of G-d is certainly highly valued, doing so without a meaningful understanding of what the mitzvah represents, may result in a significant diminution in a mitzvah’s fulfillment.

While it is true that Jewish theology subscribes to the belief (Pesachim 50b), “Mee’toch sheh’lo lish’mah, bah lish’mah“, that a person who performs a mitzvah, even without the proper intentions, will ultimately develop those intentions, personalizing the mitzvot and bringing them home is of crucial importance. “Na’ah’seh v’nish’mah,” we will do and we will obey, was likely a valid response for the Jews who experienced the exodus from Egypt and who saw the splitting of the Red Sea. But for our 21st century generation, perhaps “nish’mah” is more important. Understanding the mitzvot, wrestling with them and finding their inner meanings, uncovering their inner beauty and the sense of fulfillment that the process of performing a mitzvah brings, is perhaps the highest level of mitzvah observance.

This is the kind of ratification that we need for our Covenant today, to fully accept upon ourselves the dominion of G-d and to search and struggle for the innate beauty of each mitzvah, to bring it home, so that we may not only “hear” it, but truly understand it.

This Shabbat is also Parashat Shekalim. It is one of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, in which special thematic Torah portions are read. This week’s additional Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16.

May you be blessed.