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We Can Relate

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

Towards the end of Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah records perhaps one of the most famous of Bnei Yisrael’s declarations: “ ” – “we will do and we will listen!” At first glance, this represents a praiseworthy expression of a nation’s complete and unquestioning loyalty to their God. However, in a gemara in Shabbat (88a), a heretic criticizes the nation for such impetuousness, for foolishly pledging to do whatever is required before hearing the list of demands!

“The heretic said to Rava: You impulsive nation, who gave precedence to your mouths over your ears...You should listen first; then, if you are capable of fulfilling the commands, accept them. And if not, do not accept them.”

And while one could argue that criticism from a heretic is obviously biased and ultimately meaningless in regards to how we appreciate the Divine faithfulness of our ancestors…the gemara then records Rava’s response to this heretic’s claims:

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“[Rava] responded to him: About us, who proceed wholeheartedly and with integrity, it is written: “The integrity of the upright will guide them” (Proverbs 11:3)…”

Notice, Rava does not reject the heretic’s claims of blind impulsively, but rather explains how it is, nonetheless, not erroneous; that the unquestioning belief in, and unqualified acceptance of God’s will ultimately prove positive and true. Therefore, whether through the heretic’s or Rava’s perspective, based on the gemara in Shabbat, we are clearly to understand that the nation’s response to Moshe was abnormally unfounded and impulsive.

However, if you look at the words that precede this famous statement of “ ”, a very different understanding is easily appreciated.

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“And [Moshe] took the record of the covenant and read it in the ears of the nation; and they responded ‘all that God spoke to us, we will do and we will listen’”

In the beginning of the pasuk, we are told very clearly that Moshe first relayed to the nation God’s terms and conditions, before they said ‘we will do’ – which seems to make “ ” a perfect response! Moshe first laid out what God demanded of them and then they said ‘we’re in!’  - no impulsiveness or impetuousness at all! And the ‘we will listen’ at the end of the statement can now be simply understood as ‘and whatever else He will tell us, we will listen to that too’. Far from being a criticism-worthy, unfounded, blind-faith acceptance, according to the words of the Torah, it seems instead to relay a well-informed, deep-seeded expression of total loyalty! A response we can readily and proudly praise our ancestors for without criticism, or necessity for justification.

However, in light of this nationally-validating read, another, separate difficulty arises. Four pesukim earlier in the same perek, it states:

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“And Moshe came and relayed to the nation all the words of God and the laws; and the entire nation answered with one voice, saying: ‘and the words that God spoke we will do!’”

Even before the famous “ ” moment (in pasuk seven) Moshe had already, in pasuk three, relayed a similar list of God’s commands to the nation (“ '” - as in pasuk seven), and they had already declared an almost exact statement of loyalty (“” - as in pasuk seven)! The questions now become: why did Moshe feel the need to repeat the ‘law-enumerating/national acceptance’ scene in pasuk seven; and, by extension, why did it ‘fit’ that the nation only said “” in the first scene, but added “” in the second?

After the nation’s acceptance of God’s demands in pasuk three, the Torah reports that Moshe then writes down all of the ‘ '’ which the nation had just accepted. He then proceeds to build a mizbeach, sacrifice upon it, and collect the animals’ blood (pesukim 4-6). It is then that Torah records ‘our’ pasuk:

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“And [Moshe] took the record of the covenant and read it in the ears of the nation; and they responded ‘all that God spoke to us, we will do and we will listen’”

This time, the previously enumerated “ '” (from pasuk three) are specifically read from a record of the covenant; and after the nation’s (famous) response, Moshe sprinkles the nation with the collected blood, declaring, ‘this is the blood of the covenant that God has made with you concerning all of these things (“”)’. There is no doubt, therefore, that Moshe repeated the ‘law-enumerating/national acceptance’ scene in pasuk seven specifically to present it the second time around within a unique covenantal context. So, what was ‘lacking’ the first time that this second time ‘fixed’?

The nature of a /covenant is that it is made equally between two parties; both sides accepting responsibility for the demands found within that contract. When the nation originally accepted God’s terms (in pasuk three) it was a welcomed and laudable expression of loyalty – a people’s complete devotion to its authority. However, Moshe understood that there was a more important appreciation to be reached; there was yet another deeper level of this acceptance which the nation needed to understand and demonstrate. Therefore, once having witnessed that the nation was indeed wholeheartedly devoted to God’s will, Moshe then immediately set-up the second (more important) “” stage. He declared that in actuality this law-system from God is part of a mutual contract – and that while the nation was ready to accept their responsibility to Him, truly they must also understand and appreciate that, at the same time, God, too, is just as devoted and ready to accept His responsibility to them! And this is why the added ‘’ from the nation during this covenantal scene is the perfect (and proper) addition: for while they are ‘again’ declaring their loyalty - with “” - they are then stating – with “” - that they will also be forever devoted to the eternal relationship God is entering into with them, ready to ‘heed’ whatever will be required of them in the future, too.

So often we find it difficult to even accept, and much less achieve, a ‘relationship’ we are supposed to have with God when it isn’t ‘two ways’. We continuously ‘give’, but where is God’s response? Where’s His part of this mutual connection?

It is well-known that the deeper the knowledge of someone or something, the deeper the connection to that person or idea. And as Rambam similarly expresses at the end of Hilkhot Teshuva, in discussing the concept of devotion to God (“ '”):

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“The only way to devote yourself to God is through the knowledge that one knows Him with. And the level of knowledge directly corresponds to the level of devotion…”

God gave us the Torah; the greatest vehicle to understand everything we need to know about Him – our partner. One will be hard-pressed to find a more open and revealing partner - in any relationship - than the partner we have with God in our relationship with Him. He ‘lays Himself out there’ through countless stories, mitzvot and philosophies – all we have to do is make the effort to discover Him. And in Parshat Mishpatim, Moshe ensures that the people truly understand what God is offering them from the very initial stages of their nationhood: not merely another Master to express their loyalty to; but rather a partner in a fundamental covenantal relationship. And when they respond “ they are readily and deeply establishing their personal inclusion - and ultimately the eternal inclusion of all their descendants’ – into this blessed Divine union.

 

 

 

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