‘Impulsive’ Parashat Mishpatim 5783

Israelis are known for being impulsive. We have a habit of saying what’s on our minds. It should not be surprising that there is no Hebrew word for “tact”. We have been an impulsive people pretty much since we were forged into a nation about three and a half thousand years ago. When G-d offers the Jewish People the Torah at Mont Sinai, we respond [Shemot 24:6] “We will perform [what is written in the Torah] and we will listen”. These words are seemingly out of order: first a person should listen to what is being commanded and only then can he correctly act. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] tells of an apostate who watches as the great scholar, Rava, becomes so involved in his Torah study that he squeezes his fingers hard enough that they bleed. The apostate derides him, saying “You impulsive nation, who accorded precedence to your mouths over your ears, remain impulsive to this day”.

Impulsive, indeed, but what were the Jewish People thinking when they said, “We will perform and we will listen”? The Rashbam[1] suggests that their intention was to say, “We will perform what G-d has said already, and we are also prepared to listen (obey) to what He will command from here on in.” While the Rashbam typically endeavours to present the most straightforward solution, this explanation seems somewhat forced. Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik[2], quoted in “Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought”, proposes an explanation that is nothing less than remarkable. Rabbi Soloveichik suggests that “performing” connotes “unqualified obedience and submission of one’s will” while “listening” refers to the “receptivity of the mind and heart and also exhibits the willingness to study and to be enlightened”. Rabbi Soloveichik does not reject the straightforward meaning of the verse: By preceding “performing” with “listening”, the Jewish People were pledging their absolute fealty to G-d and His Torah even before hearing what it contained and the impact of keeping its commandments. “They accepted a distinctive and demanding national destiny… without prior deliberation and without subjecting the proposition to critical evaluation”.  While this kind of behaviour might seem rash, it was anything but that. Drawing on concepts from the esoteric Torah (Kabbala), Rabbi Soloveichik breaks down the human intellect into two basic components. The first component is called the “Lower Will (Ratzon Tachton)”. This component makes up man’s pragmatic intellect, which methodically calculates the utility of each and every path before choosing an optimal one. The second component is called “Higher Will (Ratzon Elyon)”. This component arrives at decisions spontaneously, without performing explicit calculations. Rabbi Soloveichik explains that the Higher Will “lies at the centre of the spiritual personality and constitutes man’s real identity”. He asserts that all major decisions made by human beings are performed intuitively, “spontaneously and suddenly”. Examples include decisions of faith, marriage, choice of profession, and acts of military genius. “Decisions which are radical in nature, revolutionary and decisive are extensions of the Higher Will… This will transcends man’s intelligence and, in most cases, points toward a more exalted ideal.” Neither of the two wills is subordinate to the other, which can lead to dilemmas when the two are in conflict. The Lower Will, guided by “cold facts”, will always take the safer route, for better or worse: “[The Lower Will] lacks elevating vision and the capacity to venture forth boldly. If man aspires to greatness, he must identify with the Higher Will”. Without the Higher Will, the Jewish People would never have wilfully chosen to accept the Torah. To do so, they had to act impulsively. Had they performed a cost-benefit analysis, they might very well have chosen to politely decline G-d’s offer.

One cannot look at Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanation and not think of Daniel Kahneman’s[3] “Thinking Fast and Slow”, one of the most important books ever written on the topic of Behavioural Economics. The book’s main thesis is the differentiation between two modes of thought: “System-1” is fast, instinctive and emotional while “System-2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. System-1 relies on heuristics and on approximations while System-2 demands hard calculations. An example of System-1 is driving a car. We do not need to calculate the instantaneous traction of the wheels on the road or the turn radius. We just drive and somehow we somehow manage to get where we need to go. An example of System-2 is solving a Sudocu or crossword puzzle. A person who tries to drive a car using System-2 will inevitably overthink and crash it. The human mind implements both systems, sometimes simultaneously, and by understanding which system is operating at any given time, a person can become less susceptible to biases and overconfidence and can make critical real-time decisions with greater confidence. It is not a reach to suggest that Kahneman’s System-1 corresponds to the Kabbala’s Higher Will while System-2 corresponds to Lower Will, leading to the conclusion that the impulsiveness of the Jewish People at Mount Sinai was not only spiritually justified but made economic sense, as well[4].

This understanding can shed new light on two revelations described near the end of the Portion of Mishpatim. The first revelation begins with the words [Shemot 24:1] “Then [G-d] said to Moshe, ‘Come up to G-d, with Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow from afar.’” They all climb the mountain, where they see [Shemot 24:10] “the G-d of Israel, under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity”. The second revelation immediately follows the first one [Shemot 24:12]: “G-d said to Moshe, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them’”. Moshe climbs the mountain by himself, where he sees [Shemot 24:17] “the Presence of G-d… in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain”. The opinions of the commentators vary wildly as to the chronology of the two revelations, whether one or the other occurred before or after the Torah was given. While this essay will not delve into this particular discussion, it is clear that the two revelations were distinct. Let’s take a closer look at three ways in which the two differ: [1] In the first revelation, Moshe climbs the mountain together with seventy or so other people, while in the second one, he climbs the mountain alone. [2] While in the first revelation, G-d speaks in the third person, in the second one, He speaks in the more intimate first person. [3] Only in the second revelation does G-d command Moshe to “be there”. What does this word even mean? Rabbi Mordechai Yossef Leiner[5], writing in “Mei HaShiloach”, explains that in the second revelation, G-d commanded Moshe to climb “all the steps of wisdom” to the top of the mountain, to elevate his intellect as far as it could go. There, alone at the top of the world, Moshe would “be there” – he would discover the very kernel of his being, “a place of purity and the source of life”. There, Moshe would simply “be”. G-d challenged Moshe to go beyond his Lower Will, his System 2, and to be guided by his gut feeling and by his intuition, by his Higher Will and by his System 1. G-d wanted Moshe to believe in Him without having to prove His existence, to accept His Torah without having to understand its logic, if only because it came from Him.

The Jewish People are not merely impulsive. We are the Jewish People because we are impulsive. And thank G-d for that.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known by his acronym “Rashbam”, was the grandson of Rashi, and lived in France in the twelfth century.

[2] Rabbi Soloveichik was the leader of Modern Orthodox Jewry in North America during the second half of the previous century.

[3] Professor Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work in Behavioral Economics.

[4] Professor Kahneman would probably not agree. At a talk given in London in 2014, Kahneman noted “how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism).”

[5] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Poland, known as “the Ishbitzer”, lived in the first half of the eighteenth century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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