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Gutsy Listening

  • Gutsy Listening

    Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18
D'var Torah By: 

FOCAL POINT

Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of Adonai and all the rules [mishpatim]; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that Adonai has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of Adonai.

Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to Adonai. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do [naaseh v’nishma].” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which Adonainow makes with you concerning all these commands.” (Exodus 24:3–8)

D'VAR TORAH

This week we make a rather abrupt transition from the rich narrative account of our collective experience of receiving the commandments at Mount Sinai to a list of the legislative details contained in that covenant. In Mishpatim, we move from reading about the intimate details of family experiences that fill parashiyot since chapter 1 of Genesis, to the moral, ethical, and religious behaviors that will be expected of our community. In past weeks, we gleaned lessons from the lives and actions of our ancestors. With Mishpatim, the lens of our history widens. The focus of the Torah shifts to the required norms and rules expected from B’nei Yisrael,the massive community that is the Children of Israel, moving from slavery in Egypt, to freedom at the shores of the sea, and finally to responsibility at the foot of a mountain.

In this parashah, we read of the ox that gores; an eye for an eye; how to treat the stranger, the widow, and the orphan; how to treat slaves; and property laws. We read about capital punishment, dealing with the enemy, and the consequences for inadvertent injury of a pregnant mother. It is at the very end of Mishpatim, which outlines more than fifty mitzvot, that a ritual takes place: a ratification of law by the people who will adhere to it. Here the Israelites signify their acceptance of the b’rit using the oft-quoted phrase naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will hear.” Interpreted as an enthusiastic commitment to act, the phrase has also been misunderstood as a call to action that omits understanding. The Talmud quotes a Sadducee who characterizes some Jews as “a people of haste, putting your mouth [aseh, ‘doing’] before your ears [nishma, ‘listening’]” (Babylonian Talmud, K’tubot112a).

Last week, in Parashat Yitro, we read that B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, accept the covenant with God by saying, “All that Adonai has spoken we will do [naaseh]!” (Exodus 19:8). Again, in this week’s parashah, the Children of Israel respond to the reading of the covenant with the same words, “All the things that Adonai has commanded we will do” (Exodus 24:3). It is only after the blood ritual that the formula, recited by the Israelites in one voice, includes doing first and then hearing. It is a shining moment for the Children of Israel, who, according to the Sages, imitate the ever-loyal and ever-present malachim, “angels,” in voicing a willingness to do God’s will even before understanding it fully. “Rebbe Elazar said: At the moment Israel preceded 'nishma' with 'na'aseh,' a voice descended from heaven and said to them, 'Who has revealed to my children this secret that is known [only] to the ministering angels?" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a).

In this parashah, the community moves from doing to an enduring and penetrating understanding of the law itself. They are finally “hearing” the word of God. In fact, in the same verse when the Children of Israel make this famous declaration, the text says that the b’rit, or “covenant,” was read b’oznei haam, literally “in the ears of the people.” It enters their being. On more than one occasion I have heard teachers link the Hebrew word for “guts,” mei’i, with the word for hearing, sh’ma. The two words share the letters mem and ayin. I am not a linguist, but the midrashic implications are rich. Real hearing occurs when the words enter deeply, when the message is so powerful that it moves from your ears well into your gut. Naaseh, “we will do,” v’nishma, “and we will,” to use a more contemporary translation, “own these words.” Like the text itself, this is a transformative moment for the Israelites. Thus we read of the blood ritual described above, marking this moment of ownership, of gutsy listening.

Of course, the Holy One needs to muster considerable divine patience to cope with the stiffnecked nation with which God has made this covenant. In fact, three weeks from now, in Ki Tisa, the Israelites’ resolve crumbles as they fashion the Golden Calf. But their immediate punishment (Exodus 32:20) is that they are made to drink water mixed with the powdered ashes of the burnt calf. In contrast to what happens in this week’s parashah, when the words enter their kishkes (Yiddish for “gut”) in joy, in Ki Tisathey are made to swallow their words, which surely can make them ill! In both cases, their actions are experienced from deep within.

As a child, I attended Herzl Camp in Wisconsin for many years. The camp had an interesting minhag, “custom,” that still continues today. Every Shabbat, the individual who leads the camp in Birkat HaMazon declares, “Naaseh!” and the entire camp shouts back with youthful glee, “V’nishma!” It was not until my third or fourth summer at camp that I asked my counselor, “Why do we do that?” She promptly sent me to the director, an individual of great wit, who quickly responded, “To remind you to do what you are told and then listen to the explanation. Abrahamson, tomorrow you mop the dining room floor. Next question?” I never forgot his answer.

In Mishpatim , the Children of Israel take ownership of the b’rit. They accept the importance of doing mitzvot, of adhering to the law as a path to understanding it. Transformed, they wrestle with it, question it, challenge it, celebrate it, defend it, embrace it, and hold fast to it, as we do, because it has taken root at the very core of their—and our—being.

BY THE WAY

  • Judaism begins with the commandment:
    Hear O Israel!
    But what does it really mean to hear?

The person who attends a concert
With his mind on business
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what he will have for dinner
Hears—but does not really hear

The man who listens to the words of his friend,
Or his wife, or his child
And does not catch the note of urgency
Notice me, help me, care about me,
Hears—but does not really hear.

The man who listens to the news
And thinks only of how it will affect business
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who hears the Hazzan pray
And does not feel the call to join with him
Hears—but does not really hear.

The person who listens to the rabbi’s sermon
And thinks that someone else is being addressed,
Hears—but does not really hear.
(Jack Riemer, from “Listen,” an introduction to the Sh’ma, in Likrat Shabbat [Bridgeport, CT: The Prayer Book Press, Media Judaica, 1981], p. 74)

  • Where did the People Israel find the strength to utter, "Naaseh v'nishma"? This ability comes from Abraham. "Look toward the heavens and count the stars. Are you able to count them?. . . So shall be your offspring" (Genesis15:5)

    When the Holy One made this promise to Abraham, God took him outside and told him, "Count the stars." Abraham began counting. God asked Abraham, "Are you able to count them? Why would you even attempt to count the stars when it's impossible for a human being to do so?” Just as you, Abraham, tried to fulfill the will of the Divine without first deciding if you were able, "So shall be your offspring." So will your descendants be willing to say "Naaseh" before "Nishma." (Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin)

YOUR GUIDE

  1. Can you describe what it means to hear from your kishkes?
  2. Have there been times when you have performed Jewish ritual without understanding its full meaning, only to have the meaning grow out of the doing? What works better for you, trying a ritual and then talking about it, or researching a ritual and then trying it? Which works better for the Jewish People?
  3. How do you understand the phrase naaseh v’nishma? Is it blind faith or the ultimate act of devotion?
  4. How might you improve your hearing of Torah and of prayer?

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson is a member of the professional staff of the Wexner Foundation, Columbus, Ohio, and is the director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

2/05/2005
Reference Materials: 

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538
Haftarah, Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 714-716; Revised Edition, pp. 539–541