“Not Ready to Listen” Parashat Yitro 5775

As they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Torah, Am Yisrael nearly get it right. Moshe tells them that Hashem wants to join with them into a covenant. He tells them that Hashem wants them to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation”. He tells them that Hashem wants to give them His Torah. Am Yisrael are ready and willing. They answer Moshe emphatically [Shemot 19:8]: “Everything that Hashem has told you we will do – na’eseh!” So close but yet so far.

But they get another chance. After the Torah has been given[1], Moshe relays to Am Yisrael all of the things that he has been commanded. Again, Am Yisrael answer quickly and unequivocally [Shemot 24:3]: “All of the things that Hashem has commanded you we will do – na’eseh!” Missed it by that much.

They get one last chance. Moshe writes all that he has been taught in a “Book of the Covenant”, and he reads it to Am Yisrael. Their answer is monumental and eternal [Shemot 24:7]: “All that Hashem has commanded we will do and we will listen – na’aseh v’nishma”. Bingo. According to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88a] “na’aseh v’nishma” was the most profound statement ever uttered. It is a statement that is reserved for angels, for whom the axis of time is irrelevant[2]. How could a mortal human perform something he has not yet heard? Hashem was quoted as saying “Who revealed this secret to My Children?” The Talmud teaches that Hashem rewarded Am Yisrael for their insight by giving them two crowns – one for “na’aseh” and one for “nishma”. By all accounts it was a watershed in the history of our nation. Well, what took them so long? How come they didn’t say “na’aseh v’nishma” the first two times? Why was only “na’aseh” sufficient?

In order to answer this question, we must first understand the meaning of “na’aseh v’nishma”. How can a human being perform something before being commanded[3]? How is it possible to second-guess Hashem? The most common explanation, at least among the medieval commentators, is that “na’aseh v’nishma” means that [1] We will do as we have been commanded, and then [2] We will await further commandments and we will perform them as well. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t explain why Am Yisrael did not answer “na’aseh v’nishma” the first time Moshe comes to them. It is even counter-intuitive. Hashem has not yet given them the Torah. They are about to experience a one-of-a-kind Divine Revelation and to hear with their own ears as Hashem recites the Ten Commandments. This is the perfect place to say “na’aseh v’nishma”. And yet they reply with a simple “na’aseh”. Why?

Let’s take a closer look at the three instances above and look for a way in which the third instance differs from the first two. In the first instance, the Torah tells us that [Shemot 19:7] “Moshe called for the elders of the nation, and he told them all that Hashem had commanded”. In the second instance [Shemot 24:3] “Moshe came and told the nation the words of Hashem and the laws”. Compare this with the third instance: Moshe has just written a Book of the Covenant, and [Shemot 24:7] “He took the Book of the Covenant and he read it in the ears of the nation”. In the first two instances, Moshe is speaking without notes. The third time, however, he is reading from a script. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch asserts that this is the reason that Am Yisrael respond with “na’aseh v’nishma”. When Moshe relayed the laws to them verbally, “the Halacha had been fully explained to them in all its detail and meaning”. As a result, they answer with “na’aseh” – “We are fully capable of carrying out what we have been taught precisely as you have commanded”. When the words of Hashem are written down, however, the situation is different. It is impossible to convey all the nuances and details of the Halacha over a written medium. In Rav Hirsch’s words, the Written Torah “contains the Halacha only in a short basic formula”. Had Am Yisrael answered with the same “na’aseh”, their pledge would be referring only to the Written Torah, and without Moshe’s explanation the Torah would be incomplete. And so they add the word “v’nishma” – “We will learn from you all that has not been written down [in the Book if the Covenant] and yet is critical to the performance of the mitzvot”. In Rav Hirsch’s words “We will accomplish this by listening – by getting to know that which has remained verbal we will put ourselves in the condition of being able to carry out the will of Hashem truly and completely”. This was the greatness of “na’aseh v’nishma”. Am Yisrael understood that there was more to the Torah than what met the eye. They understood that a Written Torah must be accompanied by an Oral Torah in order to be understood and in order to remain eternally relevant.

Rav Hirsch’s explanation can elucidate another way in which the third instance differs from the first two. In the first instance [Shemot 19:8] “The nation answered as one and said…” Similarly, in the second instance [Shemot 24:3] “The nation answered with one voice and said…” However, in the third instance, there is no mention of any kind of unity. The people[4] simply answer “na’aseh v’nishma”. Why don’t they answer “with one voice” or “as one”? This question is only amplified when we consider that the Torah describes [Shemot 19:2] how Am Yisrael encamped next to Mount Sinai using the singular (va’yichan) and not the plural (va’yachanu). Rashi explains that this shows that they encamped “as one person with one heart”, emphasizing the unity of the nation as they prepare to receive the Torah. Why should this unity dissipate just as they reach the pinnacle of “na’aseh v’nishma”? The answer is that the Oral Torah, while correctly understood by Am Yisrael as being vital for interpreting the Written Torah, is by its nature fraught with the danger of dissent and dispute. Jewish history is littered with cults and sects who have interpreted the Torah in ways that have drastically differed from the teachings of our Sages. Even our Sages themselves typically have differing opinions on the way in which the nuances and details of the Written Torah is to be understood. It is the rare Halacha that is agreed upon by all. In some cases these differences of opinion have led to disaster[5]. And so it is impossible for “na’aseh v’nishma” to be uttered “in one voice”. It is by its nature a cacophony of voices.

This clarification can perhaps answer the question “If the Oral Torah is so important, why did Hashem bother writing anything down at all?” The Written Torah is our anchor. It is the source – the wellspring – for every single law, rule, and custom. The Oral Torah introduces flexibility and wiggle-room into the brittleness of the Written Torah. It enables interpolation and extrapolation. But it requires a firm basis. The Written Torah without the Oral Torah leads to stagnation, while the Oral Torah without the Written Torah can only lead to chaos.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] There is a difference of opinion between Rashi and just about everybody else as to when this episode happened. The majority opinion is that it happened after the Torah was given at Sinai.

[2] This is how Rav Baruch HeLevi Epstein interprets the Talmud in the “Torah Temima”.

[3] While some of the mitzvot, such as murder and theft, would have been kept even had they not been explicitly commanded, many of the mitzvot do not necessarily mesh with human logic.

[4] The word “nation” is conspicuously missing from the verse.

[5] The best example is the example of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, two schools who are nearly always at loggerheads. Beit Hillel traditionally takes the lenient approach to Halacha and Beit Shammai traditionally takes the strict approach. While the Babylonian Talmud describes the relationship between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel as cordial, the Jerusalem Talmud [Shabbat 1:4] tells a different story. It describes a “9th of Adar Massacre” in which “The students of Beit Shamai stood at the bottom [of the stairs], and they killed the students of Beit Hillel. It was taught: Six of them went up [to the attic], and the rest of them attacked them with spears and swords”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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 2001 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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