Mishpatim: Heart and Mind

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Heart and Mind
31 Jan 2008

It has happened more than once that I really need my friend’s help. No is simply not acceptable for now. I approach him strategically: “Can I ask you a question?”, “Sure” he responds, “What is it?” I lay down the gauntlet, assuredly stating “Just say yes – then I’ll ask”. Usually, they don’t say yes.

Ama Peziza – “A foolish hasty nation that places its mouth before its ear” is the external incredulous response to our triumphant words na’aseh v’nishma – understood Rabbinically to mean something like “we will do whatever it is – now tell us what it is and we will try to comprehend” (Shabbos 88). Irrational? Surely! But people in love often do crazy things. Perhaps this is yet another layer of depth in that rich Rabbinic analogy that likens our acceptance of the Torah to a marriage. Not only is it about a lifelong commitment – it is essentially an unknowable endeavor. A heilige madrega (lofty height) – a holy people ready to take the Divine plunge without an inkling of its enormous commitment.

The pashtan (textual analyst of Torah) might balk. Is it true that the Jews had no clue? Na’aseh v’nishma appears in chapter 24 while the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments are in chapter 20, followed by the myriad, complex laws of Mishpatim. These laws encompass much Talmud (Bava Kamma, Metzia, Basra, Sanhedrin, Makkos, etc.) – A veritable lifetime of learning. Is it not the case that by the time Bnei Yisrael were ready for the Sinai revelation, they surely had a ta’am, a taste of coming attractions.

Rashi, citing Rabbinic tradition, indicates that ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah, i.e. we need not be bound to chronology in Torah. Even though na’ase v’nishma is presented afterwards, the event took place before Bnei Yisrael heard the Ten Commandments and parshas Mishpatim. When the Torah relates that Moshe read to Bnei Yisrael the sefer habris, the book of the covenant (without detailing the contents), it is referring to the narrative of world history from Creation through Exodus, traversing the patriarchs and matriarchs. Thus the naïve, beautiful and idealistic na’aseh v’nishma remains in place.

Ramban, axiomatically rejects this approach. De facto, Torah is always in chronological order unless we find an explicit source to the contrary (cf. Bamidbar, 9:1 with Rashi). Na’ashe v’nishma took place after the Jews had already heard the Ten Commandments and had been exposed to the sundry details of Jewish jurisprudence. Indeed, this constituted the sefer habris – the book of the covenant upon which Bnei Yisrael uttered their words. When I learned Ramban, it was somewhat of a downer. If Bnei Yisrael knew what to expect, did na’aseh v’nishma mean as much? It was a reasoned rational decision – where was the great Divine plunge? It seemed that na’aseh v’nishma had lost some luster.

But upon reflection, I have changed my mind.

Ever notice at a wedding there are usually two distinct groups of guests: 1. Chosson-Kallah and friends 2. Parents and their friends. Both are smiling and laughing and enjoying. Perhaps one group is a bit more energetic and the other somewhat sedentary – but they seem essentially united. In truth, their joy emerges from different places. For the first group, there is an incredible purity and idealism associated with the wonder of marriage – let’s call it blessed naivete. Zeh hayom kivinu lo, this is the day and the moment we have pined for. The second group, we will call them the veterans, smile as well. It’s a different type of smile. Surely they too are moved by the pristine and beautiful moment of love – but they are armed with the retrospective of the challenges, meanderings and vicissitudes of life. They smile because they remember their innocence and for a moment they have regained it – but their grin is somewhat enhanced by the delicious realization that the first group knows not a clue of what lies ahead. I concede that this might be a projection.

What Ramban’s na’aseh v’nishma lacks in naivete and idealism it more than makes up in gravitas and experience. Their rational knowledge could have been a hindrance to their acceptance of Torah. Their na’aseh v’nishma was not a Divine leap of faith, but rather a leap of knowledge – transcending their conception of the real challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps, Ramban’s na’ase v’nishma is like the couple that get married a little later in life – armed with greater self knowledge and more real with their challenges.

Which is greater? To commit without knowing what to expect or to accept with clear knowledge of the work that lies ahead. They are different avodahs (tasks). The first is emunah peshuta (simple, pristine faith) and the second emunah amukah (deep, rational faith). One challenges the heart, the other confronts the mind – both absolutely critical in the molding of a complete Jew.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.