By Rabbi Jim Rogozen
We’ve all had the experience of mishearing song lyrics. A classic is Elton John’s “Hold me closer Tony Danza.” Or we hear things correctly, but misquote them later on, “Play it again, Sam” is actually “Play it, Sam.” Sometimes, though, we hear or read things correctly but we don’t really understand them.
There is a famous pasuk that, I believe, is the most misunderstood verse in the Torah, and I am here to set things right!
Back in Exodus 24:7 (page 478) we read:
ז) וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃)
And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant, and he read it aloud to the people; and they said: ‘All that God has spoken “naaseh v’nishma.” How do we translate that? We will do and we will….? It’s a problem.
If you’re confused, don’t feel bad. While modern English has approximately 172,000 unique words, Biblical Hebrew had only 8,679 unique words, of which 2,415 were people or place names. Which is why many words in the Bible have multiple meanings.
An early Midrash, Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, says nishma simply means we will hear. It asks: “How do we know there were no deaf people at Sinai? ‘We will do and we will hear.’” According to the Rashbam, it means we will do and we will hear more later on. Yet another translation: we will do, and then we will understand. Which means: “we agree to do these things, before knowing the reason.”
This last translation presents us with a rather difficult theological statement, but it has had pride of place in Jewish Tradition for centuries.
Where did this translation, and this belief, come from?
The earliest mention is in the Talmud, Shabbat 88a. Rabbi Elazar taught: When the People of Israel said “We will do” before “We will hear” a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, emerged and said to them, “Who revealed to my children this secret, which only the angels know? As it is written (Psalms 103:20) ‘Bless the Lord, you angels of His, you mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, listening to the voice of His word. At first the angels fulfill His word (oseh dvaro), without understanding it; only later do they actually hear the words (lishmoa bkol dvaro).’” “oseh then shomea” “do, then hear” “naaseh v’nishma.”
It seems that Rabbi Elazar believed that saying “yes” before hearing or understanding, made the Jewish People just like the angels.
Centuries later Saadia Gaon added to this, saying that while some mitzvot are “sichliyot” – from the word sechel – meaning they make rational sense and we would have figured them out on our own, some are “shimiyot” – from shomea, meaning we had to hear them – as proclaimed by God – because we never would have thought of them ourselves. That’s what gives them their power, and, reasonable or not, we must obey them.
In the modern period, Orthodox writer Rabbi Eliyahu Safran doubled down on this belief when he wrote, “Today, there are Jews who have it backwards. They have to understand before they act.” “Had these people been at Sinai,” he wrote, “I imagine they would have said, ‘prove it and we’ll consider acting.’ Hardly a divine statement of faith.”
So I have a question: Do our texts actually back up this line of thinking– that reason and understanding weren’t necessarily part of the deal? Let’s look at our verse again…
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם
“And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant, and he read it aloud (literally: within earshot) of the people.”
This first part of the verse points out that there were laws that God had already taught. In this case, it was the 10 Commandments, back in Chapter 19, as well as the laws in Chapters 21 to 24. Three and half chapters of laws! It seems the people had heard plenty. They were not being asked to agree to things they had not yet heard.
If that’s so, what else could naaseh vnishma mean?
Consider the 2nd paragraph of the Shema (Deut 11:13), page 1052: v’haya eem shamoa – it can’t mean “if you perform the physical act of listening” all these great things will happen. God wanted more – a commitment: if you obey, all these good things will happen. But, if you don’t obey, well…good luck! When my doctor says that I need to exercise more, I always say, “I hear you”…trust me: that means absolutely nothing! So, in our verse: naase means, we will do, and then nishma – in this context, means we will commit, we will obey.
To lock this down even further, the Gemara on the same page as the Heavenly Voice story tells us an additional story: God held a mountain over the people and warned them: If you accept the Torah – good; if not – here you will be buried.” The message of the Gemara is not about “hearing” but about making a commitment. So Naaseh v’nishma means: we will do and we will obey.
Still believe the Torah asks us to observe, without hearing or understanding? Wait, there’s more!
Let’s leave Shmot and look at this week’s parsha… on page 1022. There’s a pasuk I like to call the Rodney Dangerfield verse – it doesn’t get much respect…but it should.
In Dvarim 5:24, as his life draws to a close, Moshe re-tells the stories of Shmot through B’midbar. When he recalls the giving of the Torah, Moshe reminds the people how it all went down:
קְרַ֤ב אַתָּה֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹאמַ֖ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ
“You all said to me, you, Moshe, go closer and hear all that the LORD our God will say…and then you tell us everything that God tells you
…and once we hear it (or understand it) then we will do it.”
The words are not only in the exact opposite order of naase v’nishma, but they make our ancestors look like people who didn’t sign contracts until they’d read every word.
And that’s how it played out. God told Moshe: “Tell the people to return to their tents. You stay here with Me, and I will give you the whole instruction – the laws and the rules – that you will teach them.”
So Moshe teaches them, and then tells them:
וְשָֽׁמַעְתָּ֤ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְשָֽׁמַרְתָּ֣ לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת
You have heard, Israel, or, you now understand, so make sure you do all of this.
Hearing or understanding came before commitment. When the verb “nishma” comes before “naaseh” we translate it as hear or understand, but when it comes after “naaseh” it means obey.
The Rabbis in the Midrash and Talmud were careful readers. They understood the various meanings of the verb shomea. So why did our Tradition give so much attention to naaseh v’nishma – we will do and then we will hear – when these other verses show the opposite?
Because some of the Rabbis had an agenda. I believe that they wanted to encourage a particular national theological narrative, some would call it a foundational myth, in which our ancestors had the highest level of faith and commitment, starting with Avraham and Sarah, and continued by those at Sinai, whose faith led them to accept a divine Torah unconditionally.
That’s the story they wanted to pass down, but not everyone agreed.
You see, Rabbi Elazar’s story may have another meaning, a crack in the narrative if you will, one that challenged this idea of the people’s perfect faith. Perhaps the voice from heaven who said “Who revealed to my children this secret?” – that naaseh comes before nishma – perhaps that Bat Kol didn’t say those words out of joy, but out of surprise, or even disappointment. Maybe Rabbi Elazar understood that God never expected the people to blindly accept the Torah in such a unilateral fashion. Take the law seriously? Yes. But blindly? No way. You see, the angels didn’t have free will. They had no choice but to be oseh, and then shomea, to do and then to understand, but people were given free will and open minds. As we say in the weekday Amidah: we thank God who, each day, is Honen Ha’da’at – granting us the ability to think and reason.
Free will and free thinking are good. But, the Rabbis knew that people are only human. What if they questioned too much? What if they weren’t inclined to start on this journey? Maybe that’s why the same page of Gemara relates the story of God holding the mountain over the people’s heads. It shows a different narrative, one that recognizes the tension between free will and compliance.
This tension shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, our longstanding covenant with God is told through stories that are absolutely filled with such tensions. It’s a narrative the Bible makes no effort to hide. Observance and monotheism vs rebellion and idolatry. Even today, we have a wide range of observances, understandings, and beliefs. Sometimes we are naaseh v’nishma, sometimes we’re shamanu v’asinu, and sometimes were in the middle. Obedience, choice, free will, commitment. It’s confusing, to say the least. As one of my teachers said, “Sometimes religion is neither logical, nor illogical, but psychological.”
So what’s the good news in these competing narratives? It is this: in all of these ancient stories and texts, the verbs all refer to “us” – we will do, we will hear, we will obey. Whatever our individual beliefs and practices, we are all tied to God and to one another. We navigate these issues…together.
We will all soon enter an extended period -from Rosh Hodesh Elul, through Parashat Nitzavim, and on to Rosh HaShana – in which we focus on renewal and re-commitment- as individuals within a communal context. As such, it is appropriate, and grounded in our sacred texts, to respect and support the various paths by which we are Shomea and Oseh, in whatever order makes sense to us.
As we will read in Parashat Nitzavim:
לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
It (the Torah) is not in the heavens that anyone should say “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and recite it so that we may observe it.” Notice the words: Yashmiyenu (hear it), v’naasena – (then do it) – nishma v’naaseh.
And then, moving from the collective to the individual:
כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ:
“Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.”
We all stood at Sinai to receive the Torah; we heard it then, and we continue to hear it today … with open minds and open hearts… each of us in our own way.
May this be a year in which we truly hear one another’s narratives, and respectfully learn from each other’s Torah. Nishma – First we understand and respect one another, and then naaseh, then we do. Naaseh v’nishma might work for the angels up in heaven, but Nishma v’naaseh is in each of our hands down here on earth.