Reclaiming the Crown of Torah: Mishpatim 5781

In the Song of Songs (5:2) we read a romantic verse, “I was asleep, but my heart was awake.” אני ישנה ולבי ער—the plain sense of the verse is that the time of sleep is also a time of longing. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that the people of Israel before Sinai were asleep in the sense of inaction—they had no mitzvot to perform, but their hearts were awake, yearning to connect to God.

This yearning for Torah, this desire for action, explains their remarkable response in Parashat Mishpatim when they say, “all that God has commanded, we will do, and we will hear,” כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. Arguably this is the best line given by the Torah to the people of Israel. But what exactly does it mean? Let us look at the context:

Back in chapter 20, the people respond to hearing the Ten Commandments with terror. They tell Moses to go speak with God and fill them in later, “lest we die” פן נמות. And so, Moses speaks with God, and this week in Mishpatim, he shares many rules with the people.

In Chapter 24, Moses tells the people all the words of God, all the rules. As promised, they respond enthusiastically, “And the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה. Notice that they use only one verb—we will do it, נַעֲשֶׂה.

But the passage continues. Moses writes down “all the words of the Lord, and then in the morning he builds an altar, offers sacrifices and reads the Torah aloud to the people. At this point they respond, “All that God has spoken, we will do it, and we will heed it,” נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. What’s the difference between the two responses?

The second verb, נשמע, literally means we will “hear” as in the Shema, “Hear O Israel.” But it also means, “understand.” The first verb then seems to mean that the people pledge allegiance to God, even before they understand what they are getting into. In this interpretation, the important part of their declaration is its order—obedience first, comprehension second.

There is value to pledging obedience, what the rabbis call קבלת עול מלכות שמים, accepting the yoke of divine sovereignty. Rashi, the great French commentator from the 11th century, says that sometimes the point of a commandment is simply to accept the divine decree, גזירת המלך, as he says regarding the mitzvah of Kilayim in Leviticus 19:19.

It is as if you go to a restaurant with a celebrity chef—remember that?—and the waiter comes to your table to recite the specials. You say, no need to tell me—I trust the chef. Bring us out whatever they recommend. That is trust. And yet, there is more to a meal than eating. Listening to the words, anticipating the details, and then reviewing the experience—isn’t that also important? And after all, the people don’t just say נעשה, we’ll do it. They add the second part—we will hear.

In the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 88a, we read that at the moment that Israel said first we will obey, and then added that we will hear, a host of angels came and placed two crowns on each of their heads. Beautiful, but still, what is the meaning of the double expression?

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, a great 12th century Spanish commentor, quoting Rabbi Saadia Gaon, says that this is a temporal description. First, the people promise, נעשה, we will do what we have already been told, and then second, ונשמע, we will listen for future instructions. This is a clear and convincing explanation. Except that I think it misses a crucial element of the narrative.

Remember, first the people heard from God directly, and that was too overwhelming. Moses, you tell us what to do, they say, and that he does. Moses instructs, and they cry out, “we’ll do it.” But then Moses writes it down. And then he reads it to them. And at that point they add the second verb. No longer will we simply obey instructions. Now that the text has been given to us, we can study, and we can understand. Obedience is important, but comprehension is the deeper commitment. Ever since this moment, Jewish spirituality has required each one of us to study, to seek to comprehend. Judaism is a demanding religion, this is true. There are many obligations, but after a while, those are not so hard. The real challenge is the second verb, ונשמע, to become a student of Torah.

In the medieval period, a major topic of debate was known as טעמי המצוות, the reasons behind the commandments. We only have time for a very brief discussion involving two of the most important rabbis in Jewish history, Maimonides and Nachmanides. The first, Moshe ben Maimon, or Rambam, was born in the Andalusian city Cordoba in 1135, and died in Fustat in 1204. The second, Moshe be Nahman, was born in the Catalonian city of Girona in 1194 and died in Israel in 1270. Maimonides was a philosopher. Nahmanides was a mystic.

Both of them agreed that the commandments—all of them—have a purpose, and that mere obedience is an insufficient form of Jewish practice. But they disagreed about the purpose. For Maimonides, the purpose of the mitzvot is self-improvement. People are easily distracted by their daily needs, and neglect the deeper meaning of life. The mitzvot are a program of self-improvement until we can attain enlightenment, which means that we will separate from material reality, and align ourselves with the eternal, formless, reality of God. The reason for the mitzvot is to improve us and allow us to achieve immortality of the mind.

That may sound ambitious, but it is tame compared to what Nahmanides intends. For him, the reason we perform the mitzvot is to repair a rupture in heaven. The divine realm has become divided, with the aspects of God known as Tiferet and Malkhut alienated. We humans, the kabbalists believed, play a central role in repairing this breach. Our religious practice of mitzvot can reunite Tiferet and Malkhut, bringing heaven into harmony, and blessing to earth. If this sounds audacious, even theurgical, it is. Ramban doesn’t think everyone needs to know this, but the mitzvot are a technique for assisting God, not just a program for self-improvement. If you’d like to know more about this, I recommend Moshe Halbertal’s new book on Nahmanides.

I realize that we have gotten into some pretty arcane territory, and so let’s come back to our own experience. When you hear the words of Torah in synagogue, when you learn of the many mitzvot, when you find yourself inspired to act in accordance of our ancient tradition, the question is why? Which of these explanations is most convincing to you?

Do you agree with Rashi, that the point of the mitzvot is obedience—a way of life, commanded by God, that is its own reward?

Or do you respond to Rambam, thinking of the mitzvot as a program of self-improvement, a way to escape the material demands that occupy our daily lives, and connect to the grand and eternal realm of God?

Or, do you connect to Ramban, and imagine that our own actions can, in some mysterious fashion, reverberate and affect not only each other, but even God, and bring about redemption?

You don’t really have to choose. For me, sometimes I’m a Rashi Jew, and I think that obeying the mitzvot is a way to cultivate humility, and to allow community to form. Sometimes, I do connect to Rambam, and think that these ancient traditions are meant to detach me from the here and now, to give me a broader perspective on life. And once in a while, I find the words of Ramban and other mystics to be simply wonderful—to imagine that the prayers we speak, the mitzvot we perform, the acts of hesed that we complete, can repair the rupture, and prepare the redemption.

It is Erev Rosh Hodesh Adar, and we are singing the song of Torah. Like the maiden in the Song of Songs, we are sleepy but yearning to connect to God. In that same passage of the Talmud, Shabbat 88a, we learn that the crowns received by Israel for saying נעשה ונשמע were removed when they sinned at the golden calf. But the crowns are waiting for us to reclaim. Reish Lakish says, אמר ריש לקיש: עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא להחזירן לנו, , the Holy One will return them to us. He quotes Isaiah 35:10, “and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come shouting to Zion, crowned with joy everlasting. They shall attain joy and gladness, while sighing and sorrow flee” וּפְדוּיֵי ה’ יְשֻׁבוּן וּבָאוּ צִיּוֹן בְּרִנָּה וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה יַשִּׂיגוּ וְנָסוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה:. This expression joins the words we began with—Rina, or song, and Simhah, for joy.  When we study Torah together at night, we reclaim our lost crowns, we find a path of sacred service, and we connect our souls to the source of life. This path, our path, increases purpose and pleasure, increasing joy. So, on this Erev Rosh Hodesh Adar, anticipating Shabbat Mishpatim and Shekalim, let us reclaim the lost crowns of Torah.

שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כד פסוק ג – ח, ג-ח

(ג) וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי ה’ וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה: (ד) וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי ה’ וַיַּשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ תַּחַת הָהָר וּשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה מַצֵּבָה לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: (ה) וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים לַה’ פָּרִים: (ו) וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה חֲצִי הַדָּם וַיָּשֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹת וַחֲצִי הַדָּם זָרַק עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ: (ז) וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע: (ח) וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַדָּם וַיִּזְרֹק עַל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה דַם הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת ה’ עִמָּכֶם עַל כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת כי תשא פרשה מז סימן ה

שאין רנה של תורה אלא בלילה שנא’ (איכה ב) קומי רוני בלילה.[1]

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ג עמוד ב

אמר ריש לקיש: כל העוסק בתורה בלילה – הקדוש ברוך הוא מושך עליו חוט של חסד ביום, שנאמר: יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו ובלילה שירו עמי, מה טעם יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו? משום דבלילה שירו עמי.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף טו עמוד ב

ויהי כראות המלך את אסתר המלכה, אמר רבי יוחנן: שלשה מלאכי השרת נזדמנו לה באותה שעה: אחד שהגביה את צוארה, ואחד שמשך חוט של חסד עליה, ואחד שמתח את השרביט.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פח עמוד א

דרש רבי סימאי: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע, באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת, לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים, אחד כנגד נעשה ואחד כנגד נשמע. וכיון שחטאו ישראל, ירדו מאה ועשרים ריבוא מלאכי חבלה, ופירקום. שנאמר ויתנצלו בני ישראל את עדים מהר חורב. אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: בחורב טענו, בחורב פרקו. בחורב טענו – כדאמרן, בחורב פרקו – דכתיב ויתנצלו בני ישראל וגו’. אמר רבי יוחנן: וכולן זכה משה ונטלן, דסמיך ליה ומשה יקח את האהל. אמר ריש לקיש: עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא להחזירן לנו, שנאמר ופדויי ה’ ישבון ובאו ציון ברנה ושמחת עולם על ראשם – שמחה שמעולם על ראשם.

ישעיהו פרק לה פסוק י

וּפְדוּיֵי ה’ יְשֻׁבוּן וּבָאוּ צִיּוֹן בְּרִנָּה וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה יַשִּׂיגוּ וְנָסוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה: פ

אבן עזרא הפירוש הקצר שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כד פסוק ז (ז) ויקח ספר הברית – הוא שכתב. ויקרא באזני העם, ויאמרו: כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע – ובתחלה ספר להם, וענו קול אחד (פסוק ג), כאלו קול אחד נעשה. ועתה קרא באזניהם כל הכתוב והוסיפו ונשמע. והטעם נעשה כל הכתוב ונשמע אותם תמיד שלא ישכח מפינו. והגאון אמר, כי הוא מוקדם ומאוחר, או: נעשה המצות הנטועות בלב, ונשמע מצות הקבלה. או: נעשה כל המצות שצונו עד עתה, ונשמע כל המצות העתידות, או: נעשה מצות עשה ונשמע מצות לא תעשה:

[1]  איכה פרק ב פסוק יט. קוּמִי רֹנִּי בליל בַלַּיְלָה לְרֹאשׁ אַשְׁמֻרוֹת שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֲדֹנָי