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Mishpatim 5763

By: Rav David Milston

“And he took the book of the covenant and read into the ears of the people, and they said, ‘all that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will listen’ – ‘Naase VeNishma’”.

(Shemot Chapter 24 Verse 7)

In dealing with the above verse, the Gemara in Massechet Shabbat (88a) explains:

“Rabbi Simai expounded: When Israel went ahead (Hikdimu) and said ‘we will do’ before ‘we will listen’, six hundred thousand angels descended and tied two crowns upon each Israelite, one in respect to ‘we will do’, and one corresponding to ‘we will listen’”.

The Bet Halevi comments:

Why does Rabbi Simai mention that Israel ‘went ahead and said’ (Hikdimu) instead of simply stating ‘when Israel said’? Apparently, something about Israel’s ‘going ahead’ made them worthy of two crowns.

To understand this merit, we must explain why Israel said, ‘we will do and we will listen’, rather than, ‘we will listen and we will do’.

The Zohar writes that ‘we will do’ refers to worthy actions while ‘we will listen’ refers to the studying of the Torah. There are two aspects to Torah study. One must know what the Torah says in order to adhere to its commandments. This aspect of Torah study applies to every one of us in a pragmatic way. We need to learn in order that we know exactly what we must do - ‘Naase’. However, there is another facet to limud Torah – and that is studying per se ‘Nishma’.

This duality illuminates the following exchange as described in Gemara Menachot (99b):

“Ben Dama, the son of Rabbi Yishmael’s sister, once asked Rabbi Yishmael, ‘is it permissible for someone such as me, who has learned the entire Torah, to study the wisdom of the Greeks?’

Rabbi Yishmael replied, ‘Scripture says, ‘contemplate it day and night’ (Yehoshua 1:8). Go find a time that is neither day or night in which to study the wisdom of the Greeks.’”

Rabbi Yishmael was in essence explaining to Ben Dama, that even though he had fulfilled his duty to know the entire Torah in order to pragmatically observe its commandments, he was still obligated to study Torah for the sake of Torah study itself.

Had the Jews said ‘We will listen and we will do’ (Nishma VeNaase), it would have implied that they were agreeing to listen – to study the Torah – as a means of performing its commandments. Hence, they ‘went ahead’ (Hikdimu) and said, ‘we will do’ first. Had they stopped there, it would have been clear that they also intended to learn Torah, for otherwise they could not possibly have undertaken to perform it. However, they added, ‘we will listen’, to show that they accepted Torah study as an end in itself. Only because they ‘went ahead’ and placed ‘we will do’ before ‘we will listen’ were they considered to have accepted upon themselves both obligations, the yoke of mitzvoth, and the yoke of Torah study. It was this acceptance that made them worthy of two crowns.

When Yirmiyahu HaNavi (9:11) asked ‘Why was the land destroyed?’ Hashem answered (9:12) ‘ Over their abandonment of My Torah’. The Gemara in Massechet Nedarim (81a) understands this ‘abandonment’ as the Jews failure to recite a blessing over the Torah before studying it.

Rabbeinu Nissim explains that the Torah was not important enough for the Jews of Yirmiyahu’s day to recite a blessing over it, for they did not study it for its own sake. In other words, they considered Torah study not an end in itself but a mere means to attain the knowledge necessary to perform the mitzvoth. The Gemara in Menachot (42b) says that blessings are recited only over the completion of a mitzvah. Consequently, those who considered Torah study simply a means to an end – not a mitzvah – did not recite a blessing over it.

In understanding this beautiful comment of the Bet Halevi, we can see that the mere experience of sitting down and studying the words of Hashem is an end in itself. Yet I would endeavor to add that it is also possible to understand the Gemara in Nedarim in the following way:

In essence when we make a blessing over food, we are taking an act that is physical and transforming it into a spiritual experience. A human being must eat, without food we cannot live. The need to eat is an entirely physical one. As human beings, however, our role in life is to bring spirituality into all that we do. By making a blessing before and after eating, we engulf that bodily need with spirituality.

When requiring blessings in regard to the learning of Torah, we are essentially saying, that it is not only acts involving our material life that require sanctification, but that even acts of spirituality need to be made holy in a consciously active manner.

We could therefore suggest, that ‘Naase VeNishma’ is a statement that commits us towards pragmatic learning, and learning per se. However, we must also be aware that by doing these actions in an automatic fashion we are in danger of missing the point. Even an act of spirituality needs to be sanctified. The Jews living before the destruction of the Bet Mikdash were learning consistently, yet they were not reciting Birkot HaTorah. Their actions were not actively holy; they were caught up in a day-to-day routine. Every time that we sit down to learn Torat Hashem, we need to be aware that we are delving into the words of G-d, and in the same way that Tefillah with no kavana is compared to a body without a soul; so too if we sit and learn, but do not at the same time realize the spirituality of what we are doing, then we have very much missed the point.

Rav Hirsch, when discussing the phrase ‘Naase VeNishma’ comments that by doing, by enacting the words of Hashem, we will understand more completely. There is a real truth in this statement.

When looking at Judaism from without there are so many things that seemingly don’t make sense. So many ‘petty’ issues, ‘details’ that seem pointless and even absurd to the onlooker. However, when one enters into the world of Jewish law, when one immerses oneself in Judaism, then slowly but surely one understands. It is obviously beyond us to entirely understand the ways of Hashem, but ideas and values become clearer. The mistake that so many of us make, is that we wish to understand without fully immersing ourselves. This cannot be done. If we truly, objectively, want to go forward in our religious beliefs. If we truly, objectively, want to understand issues that we cannot fathom, then we must fully immerse ourselves in the world of Judaism.

Yet I feel that the truest understanding of ‘Naase VeNishma’ can be derived from the Rambam’s words in Hilchot Meilah Chapter 8 Halacha 8:

“Each person should study the laws of the Torah, and endeavor to understand them in relation to their intellectual capabilities. Yet if we find that we cannot understand, this should not lead us to ridicule. We should not think that Torah study is similar to regular academics. (If we do not comprehend man made formulae it is quite possible that they are incorrect, that which is proven by man can be disproved. However, this is not so with the works of Hashem. It is not just possible, but quite likely that there will be times when we simply cannot fathom the meaning behind a given principle, however, we must remind ourselves that we are dealing with the words of Hashem, and we are therefore limited in our abilities to fully comprehend them).”

The Rambam goes on to list many Mitzvot that are extremely difficult to explain – statute after statute. This did not stop the Rambam from trying to understand these Mitzvot. Many of the unfathomable statutes listed later on in the above halacha, are ‘explained’ by the Rambam in his philosophical masterpiece - Moreh Nevuchim. However, in this statement the Rambam is giving us a very clear formula in our approach to Torah. We are obliged to search, we are obliged to strive for truth, however, if we do not find the answers that we are looking for we must conclude that it is due to our human limitations, and not due to a lack of truth in the Torah.

I think that this message can also be derived from a prayer that we say daily at the end of the Shacharit Tefillah. The prayer begins with the phrase – ‘Ein Kailokeinu’ – ‘There is no one like our G-d’. In the next sentence we ask – ‘Mi Kailokeinu’ – ‘Who is like our G-d’. Surely one would expect the prayer to firstly pose the question and then supply the answer? The message of this prayer is, to my mind, a clear reflection of the Rambam as quoted above.

You may ask as many questions as you like. In fact, you should ask as many questions as you like. However, whenever asking the prerequisite is that you fully understand that there is indeed no one like our G-d. That is the essence of our faith, when we don’t understand; we continue to do because we have absolute belief in Hashem.

This prayer is therefore a statement of our faith. It will therefore come as no surprise that the first letters of the first three verses when combined form the word “Amen”. The prayer is the absolute definition of our relationship with Hashem.

‘Naase VeNishma’ is in essence the practical transformation of the above. Am Yisrael at Har Sinai, accepted upon themselves to do first, then to study. In essence we are committed to do whatever Hashem requires of us. We are also committed to studying and understanding the ways of Hashem. However, if there is ever any conflict between the two. If ever our understanding conflicts with what is required of us, then we will do.

I cannot finish this week’s shiur without a brief comment regarding the elections that are taking place this week in Israel. In Israel the day of an election is officially a public holiday. I have always presumed that the reason for this is in order to enable each voter enough time to reach his or her ballot box in time to vote.

However, (even though we do not take this day off in the Midrasha), I think that Election Day in Israel should be a public holiday irrespective of the logistics. If Yom Haatzmaut is the celebration of one of the greatest miracles of our times, the celebration of an Independent Jewish State 2000 years after exile. If on Yom Haatzmaut we celebrate the beginning of Shivat Tzion, then surely, on the day when we exercise our democratic right to elect a Jewish Government in a Jewish state – surely this is a day of celebration. Even though we know that in the days of Mashiach, our democracy will look very different, nevertheless, I cannot reflect on paper how proud I am on Election Day. How proud I am to have merited to live at this time in this wonderful place. As I walk to the ballot box the most relevant words that come to mind are:

“Shehecheyanu Vekiyemanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh”

Shabbat Shalom

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