By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
Last week we read about God’s spectacular revelation directly to the People of Israel of aseret hadibrot, popularly translated as “the Ten Commandments” but more accurately translated as “the ten utterances.” Immediately upon witnessing this revelation, the people implore Moses: “You speak to us… and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” After calming the people down, Moses obliges their request and serves as the intermediary between God and the people for the delivery of the remaining 603 mitzvot (commandment). (Jewish tradition counts 613 mitzvot total.) The reading ends with God beginning privately to dictate those mitzvot to Moses.
The private dictation to Moses of the remaining mitzvot really takes off in this week’s reading as God reveals another 53 mishpatim (rules or laws). These laws cover a vast range of legal territory: civil law, damages, family purity, ritual practice, criminal law, and more. Because of the legislative focus of these chapters, they are known in English as “The Book of the Covenant,” (sefer ha-brit, in Hebrew).
At the end of this parasha (Torah portion), three things happen: 1) Moses reads “The Book of the Covenant” aloud to the People of Israel, who respond with the famous words, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do (na-aseh v’nishma); and 2) Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascend the Mountain where they have an intense mystical encounter with God; and 3) Moses continues to ascend to the peak of the cloud-covered Mountain, where God appears to him as a “consuming fire,” and where Moses shall remain for forty days and forty nights while God hews the commandments into stone.
The phrase “na-aseh v’nishma” that I mentioned above literally means “we will do and we will hear/understand/heed.” These words have been interpreted throughout the ages to mean Israel accepted God’s Torah unflinchingly, essentially saying: “We will first do whatever You command and only afterwards seek to discern Your intent or find meaning in your mitzvoth.”
In a midrash on the giving of the Torah, the sages imagine God offering the Torah to all the nations of the world. Until God came to Israel, all the other nations had inquired “What is written in it?” When they learned that the Torah would require them to take on commandments that ran antithetical to their pagan beliefs, they rejected it. Finally, God came to Israel, who responded: “Na-aseh v’nishma.”
The idea of acting before really knowing why seems anathema to our modern sensibilities. In an age of rational decision-making and limited resources, including our own time and energy, aren’t we inclined to justify our every move before taking action? One of the reasons that so few Jews are religiously observant is that they see no reason to observe mitzvot, especially those pertaining to ritual. Most Jewish ritual, after all, is meaningless to them and, therefore, not worth expending their resources on. But here’s the thing. At least in my experience, I’ve found great meaning in rituals and mitzvot that I began to practice before really knowing why. Lighting candles on Shabbat is one example. As a kid, it was just something my mother did because, I thought, “That’s just what Jews do.” Now, as an adult with a maturing theology, with a need to stepback from the week’s activities, and with children of my own, I see in the candles much more than a nod to Jewish Peoplehood. The candles symbolize a much-needed spiritual infusion at the end of the week. The lighting itself affords my family and me a moment of quiet and togetherness that we rarely experience on a workaday basis.
I could go on about other rituals and mitzvot that I first tried on because “That’s what Jews do” and which have become a meaningful part of my life: keeping kosher, wearing a kippah, feeding my pets before feeding myself, and on and one. But I’m sure you get the point.
I encourage you to take this test:
Read about the 613 Biblical mitzvot at http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm and the additional 7 mitzvot discerned by the rabbis in the Talmud at http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/411,429/What-are-the-seven-rabbinic-mitzvahs.html. Pick just one that you are not currently doing and just start doing it. Commit to taking on this one new mitzvah for six months and discover for yourself how the meaning and purpose of the mitzvah emerges for you. This process may require you to look up the mitzvah www.myjewishlearning.com or other sites because sometimes the meaning emerges from discussion with others or from the suggestions of our sages.
If after the six months you still haven’t found a good enough reason to continue with the mitzvah, return it for a full refund. As for “no questions asked,” forget it. Asking questions is another meaningful thing that Jews just do.