A Midrash on Parshat Mishpatim by Rabbi Pam Frydman at Congregation B’nai Emunah
Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion includes the famous saying, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” “we will do and we will listen”. The proverbial question is why did the Israelites tell Moses “we will do and we will listen”?
Don’t we need to listen first before we start doing something? Or is life just a set of opportunities to get things done without reading the directions, except when all else fails?
The rabbis have elevated the Israelites’ statement “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” as a centerpiece of Jewish thought because it gives us a sense that the Israelites were committing to Jewish values regardless of how difficult it might be, and regardless of what the specific challenges there might be at any given moment in our history.
Every day, we face challenges in our lives and no matter what those challenges bring, we always show up. Sure, we need to listen, so we know what’s going on. And we also need to listen because everyone likes to be listened to. But saying that “we will do and we will listen” also means that we are making a commitment to show up and do what is needed no matter what that entails, whether it be volunteering here at shul or at the food bank or fulfilling our responsibilities at work, home, school or elsewhere.
Yes, we need to listen, but our society is better, and the Jewish community is better off, because of people who are willing to say, “I am here and you can count on me and I will listen to the details later.”
In addition to this beautiful teaching about showing up, there is also another teaching embedded in this week’s Torah portion about the importance of keeping one’s promise.
In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and it frightened them. It frightened them because there was thunder, lightning, the loud blaring of a horn and an unembodied booming voice. After God gave the Ten Commandments, the people turned to Moses and said, “from now on, you talk to God, you tell us what God has to say and we will obey, but don’t let God talk to us, because if God talks to us, we’re going to die.”
While the Israelites were asking Moses to stand in their stead between them and God, they also promised Moses that when he told them what God had to say, they would obey.
During this week’s Torah portion, Moses and God were in dialogue. Moses was listening. God was talking and the subject was a set of 53 rules and commandments regarding how to live in a civil society. After God recited the 53 commandments to Moses, Moses turned around and told these commandments to the Israelites and the Israelites said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” “we will do and we will listen”.
The Israelites said “we will do” because they were keeping their promise to obey the commandments that Moses had conveyed to them on God’s behalf. They also said, “we will listen,” because they were committing to continue listening for future instructions.
There is a midrash that says, “ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah,” “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” Chronology doesn’t matter in the Torah or anywhere else in the Bible, because the order in which things are written down does not necessarily reflect the order in which those things happened.
For example, each year on the festival of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Mount Sinai and we are invited to act as though we are personally receiving the Torah all over again. In terms of chronology, that makes no sense since the Ten Commandments and the Torah were supposedly given thousands of years ago, but in terms of our own connection with the Ten Commandments and the Torah, our commitment is fresh every year or perhaps even every moment.
Like a lover who promises their heart to their beloved forever, God promised that we would be God’s people forever because our ancestors agreed to do whatever they were asked to do, and they also agreed to keep listening for future instructions.
This notion of God as our lover is instilled during the Friday night service when we sing Lecha Dodi, go my beloved to greet the bride, the face of Shabbat we will receive. The notion of God as our lover is also part of the love poetry of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is about the love and attraction between a man and a woman, but there is a midrash that on a deeper level, it is also about the love between God and the Jewish people.
It says in the Talmud that when God gave us the Ten Commandments, God actually held the mountain over us as like a chuppah. The sages have contemplated that perhaps it was the holding of the mountain symbolically over the heads of our ancestors that caused our ancestors to become so frightened.
There is also a midrash attributed to Rabbi Abdimi. According to Rabbi Abdimi, God held the mountain over our ancestors and said, “either you accept these commandments or wherever you are when you reject them, that place will become your graves.”
Rabbi Abdimi’s horrific abusive metaphor frightened his colleagues and has continued to frighten many through the ages. The rabbis did not worry that God might drop a mountain on our ancestors or on us, but they did worry because in Judaism, we shun and abhor forced marriage. A couple may not be married unless the groom and the bride agree to be married even when it is an arranged marriage.
The rabbis worried that if Rabbi Abdimi was right that God threatened the Israelites with either accepting the Ten Commandments or losing their lives, then we would not really be married to God and we would not really be committed to the Ten Commandments or any other commandments because we do not believe in coercive covenants.
At the same time, the rabbis were also committed to the symbolism of our marriage to God. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichiv said that the Festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of receiving the Ten Commandments, is really like a wedding, and God and the Jewish people are the groom and the bride. This symbolism is so alive, that in many Sephardi synagogues, there is a Ketubah l’Shavuot, a marriage contract for Shavuot. The Ketubah L’Shavuah is read aloud in the synagogue every year before the first day of Shavuot to commemorate that God and the Jewish people are getting married again and again every year.
But because of the teaching of Rabbi Abdimi that God held the mountain over the heads of our ancestors, the rabbis decided that they could not agree to the Jewish people being bound by the Ten Commandments, or by any of the commandments, because of what might have happened at Sinai and because we do not believe in coercive covenants.
The midrash that God shopped around the Ten Commandments and the Israelites said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” “we will do and we will listen” is a midrash that tells us that the Israelites said, “we will do and we will listen” before they received the Ten Commandments and before they received most of the other commandments. This midrash helps to proves that our ancestors willingly accepted the commandments even if it turns out that they might have also been threatened at Sinai by an overly jealous God.
There is also another midrash that carries the day and that is a midrash that links this week’s Torah with Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther that we read on Purim. Toward the end of Megillat Esther, it says that the Jewish people ordained and took it upon themselves and their descendants and upon all who join themselves to them. In other words, the Jewish people who lived at the time of the Purim story allegedly declared that they took Judaism upon themselves and upon future generations and upon all those who join themselves to us. In other words, our converts.
This phrase in the Book of Esther links us to the assurance that the covenant of marriage between God and Israel that took place when our ancestors received the Ten Commandments is a true and binding covenant because our ancestors willingly accepted it during the time of Queen Esther.
So now we get to the even tougher question, which is what do we do about the fact that the Book of Esther is considered to be a myth even by the most zealous literalists who believe that all the events in the Torah really happened. Even the literalists believe that the story in the Book of Esther is a fable. Our covenant to keep the Ten Commandments is reinforced in a book that is considered to be a fable. But although the story itself might not be true, we believe that our love for God and God’s love for us is true love.
And like all people who get married, we say “Na’aseh v’nishmah” “we will do and we will listen” because when we get married, we commit to what we know about the relationship at that point in time, but we need to keep listening every day in every way to know what our beloved needs and what we need to keep our marriage fresh and alive.
We don’t know, and we will never know, if the Israelites said “Na’aseh v’nishmah” “we will do and we will listen” after they already received the Ten Commandments and the 53 additional commandments given in this week’s Torah portion, or whether they said, “we will do and we will listen” even before they received these commandments.
We will also never know if God really held the mountain over the heads of our ancestors even symbolically and we will never know if Rabbi Abdimi was right that God threatened our ancestors as a despot threatens his subjects.
But either way, the Book of Esther tells us that our ancestors committed to Judaism of their own free will and we are here today doing and listening, and listening and doing, and when we don’t get the order quite right, we apologize and say we’re sorry, but that teaching belongs to another holy day that we will talk about at another time.