Mishpatim: Torah on an Endless Loop

Our parsha features the famous phrase na’aseh v’nishma, in which the Israelites commit first to do and then to listen to everything that God commands them on Mount Sinai. Although the rabbis praise the Israelites for their unconditional obedience, the Talmud also contains several voices that criticize the Jewish people for their impulsiveness. After all, what is the meaning of pledging to comply when you don’t yet know what is expected of you? A close reading of this rabbinic discussion suggests that perhaps “we will do and we will listen” is not about blind obedience, but about acting in a way that enables us to hear God’s word.

The Talmudic rabbis discuss the Israelites’ response to the revelation at Sinai in tractate Shabbat (88a). Rabbi Elazar regards the Israelites’ willingness to act before listening as angelic behavior, arguing that it is a characteristic of the ministering angels to do God’s will and only then to hearken to God’s voice. Unlike human beings, who may question or even challenge authority, the angels act as if programmed to do God’s bidding. But Rabbi Simlai raises doubts about whether this angelic behavior was really so pure and praiseworthy. He states that in the moment when the Israelites spoke na’aseh before nishma, six hundred thousand ministering angels came and tied two crowns to every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma. Then when the people sinned very soon afterward with the Golden Calf—while still standing at Sinai, awaiting Moshe’s descent down the mountain—thousands of other angels descended and removed those crowns. The Israelites may have pledged their blind obedience, but then they tripped over the very first stumbling block placed in their path, violating the first two commandments just moments after they had been inscribed on the divinely chiseled tablets.

Was it really so wise for the Israelites to agree to keep the Torah even before hearing what God had to say to them? Often when the Talmudic rabbis wish to give voice to opinions that seem too heretical to utter themselves, they place them in the mouths of others – heretics, Roman matrons or foreign kings. The Talmud goes on to relate that a certain heretic once saw that the sage, Rava, was immersed in the study of Jewish law. Presumably the matter he was studying was very difficult, because he was sitting on his hands and squeezing them together so hard that his fingers were spurting blood. Was it just a complicated passage to understand? Or was it the prospect of fulfilling what he was learning – “doing” and not just “listening”—that made Rava seem paralyzed, unable to move his hands freely? We do not know. But the Talmud relates that upon seeing Rava in such a state, the heretic said, “You impulsive nation, who preceded your ears with your mouths! You are still so impulsive!” It is not always easy to live a life of Torah and mitzvot, and sometimes it really does seem like the effort is so draining that it might have been wise first to negotiate with God over the nature of our commitment.

But perhaps Rava was not distressed by the challenge of Torah study, but rather so deeply immersed in it that the heretic’s critique did not seem to matter. We might read the Israelites’ response at Sinai not as an unconditional commitment to accept God’s laws, but rather as a description of what will happen as a consequence of living in accordance with them. Na’aseh v’nishma is less about chronology than about causation: It is not “we will do and then we will listen,” but rather “we will do so that we might listen.” The more we live in accordance with God’s Torah, the more receptive we will be to God’s will, and the less distracted we will be by competing voices. By keeping Shabbat, we allow for the stillness that enables us to hear God’s voice. By honoring our parents, we learn to submit ourselves to a higher authority. By caring for the disempowered – the widow, orphan, and stranger, as our parsha demands of us – we internalize what it means to be created in the image of God. Our actions bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s Torah and enable us to listen more deeply.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God instructs Moshe to write down the words of the Torah and teach them to the people of Israel: “Put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be my witness.” (31:19). Words of Torah ought to be like the song we can never get out of our head – the one that runs on an endless loop until we know all the lyrics by heart and find ourselves singing them unawares. This happens to those who chant regularly from the Torah, but it also happens to anyone who is deeply committed to making the words of Torah a part of themselves. It resonates inside us with every breath we take.

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