Judaism: Accepting the Torah: Our Soul's Dialogue with Its Maker
In Sichot Beavodat Hashem, Rabbi Eliezer Meizlish quotes the idea that every year before daybreak of Shavuot, Hashem asks our souls, “Who wants to accept the Torah?” At that moment, the souls of Bnei Yisroel (the Children of Israel) respond again, “Naaseh venishma – we will do and we will listen.” Every year we reaccept the Torah as we did at Sinai even if we are not cognizant of our soul’s dialogue with its Maker, and every year we are credited anew with that acceptance.
Nevertheless, how can we explain the illogic of agreeing to do before we hear the particulars? Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter in Drash Dovid explains that naaseh is a commitment to doing the mitzvoth. Once I actually “taste” the mitzvah, understanding will follow. Further, if I perform the mitzvah with some level of understanding, even greater understanding will follow the performance itself.
Let us return to that first acceptance at Sinai. The Medrash tells us that at Sinai each individual of Bnei Yisroel heard Hashem’s voice according to his own ability to hear it. Yet, the Medrash continues, their souls left them after each utterance and Hashem then returned their souls to them. If Hashem spoke to each according to his capability to understand, why would their souls leave them?
Rabbi Zev Leff in Shaarei Binah explains that while Hashem’s voice reached each individual according to his capability, He was speaking to the potential for holiness inherent in the individual. However, when the person saw the chasm between his potential and where he actually was, the grief and shock caused his soul to leave his body. "Nishma" (we will listen, said at Sinai), then, is the declaration of willingness to dedicate ourselves to spiritual growth and to narrow the gap between our potential and our actuality. Nishma is active listening, for we are all baalei teshuvah, penitents, hoping to return fully to our spiritual source.
This growth is the challenge of our lives. As Rabbi Zev Reichman writes in Path to the Tree of Life citing a letter written by Rav Hutner, when King Solomon writes that the righteous fall seven times and rise, it does not mean that the righteous just keep getting up; what the verse means is that falling and failing is the means through which the righteous grow. No one is born righteous. We each must struggle with our yetzer horo, evil inclination, to overcome it and grow.
If 'nishma' is about personal growth, what is 'naaseh' (we will do, said at Sinai) about?
'Naaseh' is about unconditional acceptance of Hashem’s commands. It is about accepting His command without personal rationalization. As Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hacohen Shapiro writes in Chazon Lamoed, Adam sinned not because he refused to obey God’s command, but rather because he inserted his own intellectual process into the command. Reasoning that by falling and then rising up to do Hashem’s will he would create a greater sanctification of God’s Name than if he just blindly obeyed the command, he disobeyed God’s command. His sin was “for the sake of Heaven”, yet it brought death into the world, for God’s wisdom must always supersede our own.
All the trees in Eden save one, the etrog/citron tree, also fell into this trap, allowing both its bark and its fruit to taste the same. Therefore the etrog tree has fruit that can live year round on the tree, remaining there all winter before the first leaves of spring. The etrog is therefore the paradigm for accepting God’s command unquestioningly, for accepting God’s command without personal calculation. Therefore, When Bnei Yisroel said 'naaseh' before 'nishma', they regained the status of Adam before the sin.
In With Hearts Full of Faith, Matisyahu Salomon adds a beautiful insight into our understanding of this seemingly illogical order of acceptance. He writes that Bnei Yisroel knew that if they asked what laws the Torah contained, they would undoubtedly find the challenges beyond them. However, they also understood that receiving the Torah would transform them, and would infuse them with a strength and power heretofore unknown to them to make the impossible not only possible but a way of life.
Rabbi Salomon continues with profound reasoning. Surely if Hashem gave humankind the ability to experience pleasure, He would not impose laws to deprive us of pleasure. But there are two levels of pleasure, the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the spirit. Physical pleasures are of a lower level and fleeting, while pleasures that envelop our spirit, whether through intellect, the arts, honor, dignity, or embracing God’s word stay with us and elevate us far beyond the moment.
By accepting the Torah, we rose to a higher level where we gladly gave up some physical pursuits for the greater joys of living as sons and daughter of the King. In this context, Torah limitations are not onerous, but a means of reaching and maintaining this elevated status and relationship with the King.
In reality, writes Rabbi Uri Weissblum in Heorat Derech, 'naaseh' does not mean we will accomplish, for results are in the purview of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Rather, 'naaseh' means that we will do whatever is in our power to fight the yetzer horo and to focus on performing the mitzvoth. If, in spite of all our efforts, we still fail, it is because Hashem so willed it, and, according to the Gemarrah, we are nevertheless credited with having performed the mitzvah. (Perhaps an appropriate example would be that someone needs to travel for a mitzvah. He starts out, but due to travel or weather conditions will be unable to perform this mitzvah in its allotted time. Nevertheless, he phones someone who is closer to act in his stead. In such an instance, he is considered an onus, someone forced beyond his control, and he also receives the merit of having performed the mitzvah.)
Rabbi Weissblum offers an interesting interpretation to the verse, “Poteach et yodecha umasbia lechol chai ratzon - You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Even in ruchniyut, spiritual matters, we ask for Hashem’s help, for Hashem lends His hand to all who have the desire to do His will. Once we demonstrate our desire, Hashem will help us along the path we choose.
In line with this idea, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil offers us an anagram for ratzon, desire. By rearranging these letters, we arrive at tzinor, conduit or pipeline. Our work is truly very narrow. It is to have the desire to do Hashem’s will, and to exert our energy in its pursuit. This desire then creates the conduit for Hashem to help us in its fulfillment.
By saying 'naaseh' before 'nishma' we demonstrated this desire, and our entire beings understood without being told what Hashem’s will was, just as Avraham Avinu was able to fulfill the entire Torah before it was given. Had we not sinned with the golden calf, our stand at Mount Sinai would have been dayenu, enough to fulfill the Torah, writes the Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom. What 'naaseh' means now is that we must work on our middot, on our character so that we purify ourselves and remove the blockages that prevent us from accepting intuitively God’s will as our own.
This is the purpose of sephirat haomer, counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. It is not just counting the days of the Omer sacrifice brought daily between Pesach and Shavuot, but of using the days of the Omer to purify ourselves so that we shine and sparkle like the sapphire stone which is the material of God’s symbolic throne.
Rabbi Pliskin cites Rabbi Yechezkail Levenstein, in writing that the Torah cannot be observed without incorporating the very fabric of our character, our middot. For example, arrogance is diametrically opposed to awe of God, and egocentricity prevents us from feeling empathy for another, thus preventing us from fulfilling so many of the social mitzvoth. If I work on myself and humble myself, I create a new definition of self, dedicated to a higher purpose. This is the work we must do.
What this means on a very basic level, writes the Chernobler Rav, cited by Rabbi Meislish in Sichot Baavodat Hashem is that I do His will even when there is no warm, fuzzy feeling attached to what I’ve done, even when it may be unpleasant for me, for His will supersedes my will.
It is undoubtedly difficult to reach this level in one leap. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz whose teachings are preserved in Daas Chochma Umussar cites the tradition that Bnei Yisroel accepted the Torah a second time, at Purim. But while the acceptance at Sinai was out of fear, the acceptance at Purim was from love.
Yet the Megillah records only one mitzvah that Bnei Yisroel took upon themselves, reading the Megillah every year. However, from performing this mitzvah wholeheartedly and with love, Bnei Yisroel sought a closer connection to Hashem, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, by performing all the other mitzvoth as well. Rabbi Levovitz points to this phenomenon and tells us that we too should begin by performing a single mitzvah with love and dedication, and our connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam, Lord of the Universe, will grow until we seek to do all the mitzvoth to the best of our ability.
This is our task on Shavuot, writes Rabbi Freeman in Shaarei Derech. We must take on a kabbalah, conscious decision, of doing one Mitzvah with ratzon, will, and that will be a demonstration that all the Mitzvoth are bratzon. We must be like a fish which is totally surrounded by water still but rises to the surface to catch new raindrops, so must we always yearn for new words of Torah and new ways to connect to Hashem. This is the rededication of 'naaseh venishma' every Shavuot that we must strive to work on the rest of the year.