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Yitro: We Will Do and Therefore Understand

Often people will speak to me about their struggles with faith.  Any sensitive human being, seeing tragic elements of the lives we live of life, might easily question whether this world really is run by some Divine Providential beings. Why would a God create a world with such suffering?  Yet, ultimately, I believe that faith is not an orientation of the mind, but an orientation of the heart.  It is not about having faith, but acting faithfully.  Beliefs are molded and shaped in a lifetime of action, and it is this that gives us the ability to live with unanswerable questions.

This week’s Torah reading describes the moment of revelation at Sinai, and Moses receives the tablets of the law.  The people say, “Na’aseh”– we shall do it, and in next week’s parasha they say Na’aseh V’Nishma, we will do it and we will listen to it.  With these words, the Jewish people accepted the covenantal responsibility of being God’s people at Mount Sinai.  (See Exodus 19:8 and chapter 24)   Many commentators have noticed the syntax of the latter phrase, noting that it makes more logical sense to say “Nishmah V’Naaseh”, we will listen and then we will do.  Before one enters into an agreement, one wants to know the stipulations and requirements and consider the options.  Only then does an individual go into a contractual relationship.  In this situation, the Jewish people decide to obligate themselves and their progeny to fulfill the Torah without knowing what is in it!

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) notes this strange anomaly and records a story between a Sadducee (in this context a heretic) and the famous amora Rava.

There was a Sadducee, who saw Rava studying a Talmudic matter. Rava placed the fingers of his hands under his legs and he was crushing them- in such a way that his fingers were flowing with blood.  The Sadducee said to Rava, “Oh impulsive one, who put their mouth before their ears!  You still persevere in your impulsiveness!  First, you should have heard the commandments so you would know whether you are able to accept them.  And if you did not hear them first, you should never have accepted them!” 

The argument of the Sadducee seems to contain an incontrovertible logic:  from his perspective, he saw an individual burdened down by an externally imposed law.  Sitting in a seat with hands bleeding, the Sadducee characterizes Rava as a pathetic individual who is the victim of his own foolishness, now paying the price.  To give an analogy, Rava is like a slave, toiling day in and day out, who voluntarily enslaved himself without even knowing what it entailed!

Nevertheless, the story does not end there, for the acceptance of the Torah was anything but impetuous, but reflected a fundamental difference in worldview.  Quoting Proverbs 11:3, Rava replied;

For those of us who go in the ways of complete faith, it is written about us, “The perfect faith of the upright shall lead them.”  For those people who go in the way of perverseness, it is written about them, “and the perverseness of the faithless shall destroy them.”

Very eloquent, but what does Rava mean? How has he responded to the challenge of the Sadducee?

In these pithy words, Rava is turning the tables on the Sadducee.   While the Sadducee claims to be quoting incontrovertible logic, his comments in reality, reflect a scorn that expresses an utter lack of moral fiber and commitment.  The Sadducee has a serious vision problem, because he cannot see farther than his nose, and has no idea what it is to live meaningfully, and what a faithful gesture might entail.  Conversely, Rava speaks from the language of faith.  People who are upright, who want to grow, may indeed suffer, but their life is defined by purpose and meaning.   Suffering is a fact; the real question is for what is it worth suffering?

Thus, the Sadducee misreads the bleeding hands; they do not tell a story of absurdity but rather of gravitas.   Serious existential issues are being worked out, matters that require the entire human person and his commitments.  For an aesthete like the Sadducee, these matters cannot be understood.

Interestingly, at the covenantal ceremony of Sinai described in next week’s parasha, blood also plays a prominent role (Exodus 24:8).  Sacrifices are offered, and the blood is sprinkled on both the altar as well as the people.  Blood in Jewish thought symbolically represents that which animates all life.  Thus, at a critical moment, the people and God’s (the altar) are symbolically intertwined; the make the deepest commitments to one another.  In our narrative, Rava continues that covenantal moment. Rava becomes bloodied because that is what the covenantal requires to make it real- ultimate commitments.[1]

We all have ultimate commitments.  Curiously, most of the things we do are not because we objectively analyze the options and come to a decision.  Rather we commit to these things because on the deepest levels those things speak to our soul.  We know that through involving ourselves in these things, we will more fully understand ourselves, and our role in the world.  We may bleed, but that is the price for really living.  Without these commitments, we do not bleed, because we are not alive.[2]

Consider marriage.  People obviously make rational considerations when deciding to marry, but the ultimate decision flows from love, a feeling that two lives’ should be inextricably linked; it is a decision to weave two narratives together into a bigger narrative.  These decisions present themselves before a person with no real way to evaluated the correctness of this decision, because one will never completely know the other, much less oneself.  It is based upon Na’aseh V’Nishmah– we will do and we will understand. The love deepens in the fabric of a life lived in the presence and response to the other.

This is the moment of Sinai, and the meaning of the words Naaseh V’Nishma, we will do and we will hear.  Sinai was the wedding between the Jewish people and God.  It was the decision to ‘weave narratives together’ into a greater narrative on a personal and national level.  Based upon this, we can reread the phrase “Na’aseh V’Nishmah”; it is not ‘we will do and we will hear’, but rather the conjunctive vav in the phrase is causative- ‘we will do and therefore understand’.  We ultimately understand the true value of what we are given in life when we commit to them.  Faith is not the beginning of commitment, but the destination of a life that consists of thousands upon thousands of faithful acts.

May we learn the lesson of Na’asseh V’nishmah in all aspects of our lives- as Jews and as human beings.

[1] It is no coincidence that blood is used in both the brit mullah (circumcision) and the Paschal offering (in ancient times).  Both are covenantal entry rituals on an individual and collective level.

[2] This notion is expressed poignantly- and tragically- in the film, “Up in the Air”, where a corporate hatchet man (George Clooney) tries to insulate his life from all connections and commitments, and comes to a painful realization that he has not really lived.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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