Commitment to Torah comes before intellectual acceptance

Keep the mitzvot so that you can understand them.

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Rabbi Jesse Horn,

Rabbi Jesse Horn
Rabbi Jesse Horn

The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat (85a) records a seemingly odd narrative where Hashem holds a mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael (the Jews) and declares that they either accept His Torah or die, implying that Bnei Yisrael were originally forced to accept the Torah.  Only many generations later does the Gemara conclude that Bnei Yisrael eventually accepted the Torah freely.

Even if we interpret this episode as figurative and non-literal, designed to make an ideological point, what is the ideological point?  What value is there in forcing a nation to accept the Torah?  And moreover, whatever was accomplished by forcing them should have been lost when they accepted it for themselves later?  If self-acceptance is the ideal, why not just start out with that? 

Perhaps the answer is based on a counterintuitive interpretation that the Sfat Emet (Parshat Yitro) has regarding the Israelites' statement: “Naaseh V’Nishmah.”  He understands “Naaseh V’Nishmah” to mean “We will do, so that we can understand (listen).”  This seems strange.  Should one not understand something first before doing it?  Is commitment not stronger once it has been properly understood?

No!  True, understanding first enables one to make a more educated decision, but the goal of Torah is not to understand intellectuality and then decide whether the Mitzvot are in one’s best interest.  The goal of the Torah is to commit to what Hashem wants, simply because He is Hashem.  A central component of having a relationship with Hashem (although there are many more, nuanced components) is the realization and acceptance of His will simply because it is His will.

Understanding is second because it is secondary.  Moreover, comprehension is designed to enable an emotional connection.  Only after accustoming oneself to Torah does understanding become more than something merely intellectual.  Only after accustoming oneself to Torah does one internalize its value.

Because religious observance is a prerequisite to deep internalization, Hashem held a mountain above Bnei Yisrael’s heads, ensuring they would act in accordance with the Mitzvot before they accepted them out of will love.  That is precisely what the Sfat Emet intended with his understanding of “We will do, so that we can understand.”  Religious observance is an imperative precondition.