Mishpatim: There are no alternative facts

How did we obey before we knew the facts?

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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran,

Simchat Torah celebrations
Simchat Torah celebrations
Yaakov Naumil/Flash 90

Such an odd sequence, to pledge to “do” before hearing what it is that you are to do!  When a people makes such a pledge before a king or a tyrant, the only promise that will ensue is their own slavery.  There is only one leader before whom such a pledge should ever be undertaken – the Lord God.  Exactly before whom the Children of Israel made their eternal pledge and promise, “Na’aseh v’nishma!”

He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, “Everything that Hashem has said, Na’ase v’nishma!”  We Jews declared our resolve to do and obey whatever God commands – even before the commandments were issued!  This pledge, this bold declaration, has remained the foundation of Am Yisrael’s faith from that that fateful day in the desert. 

There have been doubters.  The Talmud [Shabbat 88] tells of a Sadducee who was looking to mock the Torah and its people.  He tells Rava, “You are an impetuous people, for you put your mouth before your ears [by saying you will do before even knowing what you were expected to do].  Rava’s response was to the point.  “We Jews are wholesome people who love God and know that He would never command the impossible. You Sadducees and your ilk,” Rava continued, “are devious and corrupt, so you project their own doubts and distrust onto others, assuming that God cannot be trusted.”

That we are living in disturbing times has become a given.  Nothing is sacred.  Everything is open to challenge – not thoughtful discussion or honest struggle for understanding and even disagreement.  As it is in our secular institutions, so too the cry for a diminishing of traditional mores and methods in our religious lives.  Traditions are a priori to be discounted, demeaned, dismantled.  Mesorah has become, in too many circles, odious in and of itself!

To expect one to “act” based on mesorah is reason enough not to act!  The cumulative weight of centuries of tradition and practice is a burden, not a glorious shining light upon the path of life.  Mesorah is unenlightened, unsophisticated.

 Na’ase v’Nishma!

Jews at Har Sinai proclaimed a sentiment foreign for so people today.  They spoke out with one voice of faith and belief.  The Talmud, in Shabbat 88, goes on to say that God likened those Jews to the angels, for they too, are totally submissive to God.  Such a sentiment, to be submissive to God, is anathema in certain circles today.

It is, indeed, unthinkable to some people that we should simply accept and act accordingly with the command of God, particularly when it comes to a number of contemporary social issues.  We have become, in this regard, as the other nations.  The Midrash Sifri, tells us that God offered the Torah to other nations of the world and each of these nations rejected it.  Each time God came to one of the nations to propose His Torah to them, they asked, “Well, what’s in it?” When God proceeded to mention a few of His commandments, the nations had an excuse as to why they could not accept it.  It was only when God came to the Jews that He found a people happy and willing to embrace His Law.  “We will do and we will hear!”

Today, there are Jews have it “backwards”.  They are like the other nations.  They have to “understand” before they act.  Had these people been at Sinai, I imagine they would have said, “Prove it and then we’ll consider acting.”  Hardly a divine statement of faith!

God surely anticipated our modern challenges.  When He heard His People at Sinai exclaim na’ase v’ishma, He exclaimed [Talmud Shabbat 55a), “Who revealed this secret to My Children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves?”   Only the Heavenly Host, the angels, respond to God’s will without hesitation or reflection.  They are never diverted by other considerations, by “alternative facts.”

God is clear.  For Jews to proclaim na’aseh v’nishma they must be of the highest spiritual level, knowing that if a command comes from God it is by definition right and good.  Even if one does not understand the reason for the command, it is to be followed because God gave it and is, therefore, right.  Any reason or “excuse” not to perform the command – whether sociological, psychological, philosophical, or moral – speaks to the times, not to the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. 

Any response other than na’aseh v’nishma, by definition reduces us, makes us less than the angels.  Our generation is losing the ability and gift to talk and listen as ma’lachim.  In our times, poets might speak of angels but mere mortals seem to dismiss them as something unattainable.

Na’aseh talks to the fulfillment of mitzvot.  Doing.  Nishma refers to “hearing” or learning.  There are two levels of learning.  The first is simple and speaks to “mere” behavior.  “How to…”.  Curiously, this type of learning, this type of nishma tells us that it must come before doing.  For how can we do if we don’t know how or what to do?  The second type of learning is learning without practical value, learning for its own sake, Torah learning.

Chazal tells us that there never was, nor will there be, a ben sorer u’moreh – a wayward son.  Why, if there is no concrete, practical aspect to the story is it mentioned in the Torah?  Solely to reward the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the mitzvah of study for its own sake.  There is much of Torah for which there is no current practical application – sacrifices, the kohen gadol, purity, etc.  Yet, we study this Torah.  Why?  Because such study is a goal in and of itself!  There is no “why?”  There is no argument.  There is no use demanding understanding.  Such learning has no “goal” other than the goal to be one with God, to communicate with Him.  And it is only through Torah study that we can align ourselves with His holiness. 

I believe that the desire to align ourselves with God is consistent with the way of the malachim.  People look for the “bottom line.”  Angels do not.  Judaism is a way to encounter the world; it teaches us many practical behaviors and rituals.  In Judaism, we are taught to love beautiful things but Judaism is not merely those beautiful things, not merely a perfectly-formed esrog, a perfect pair of tefillin, or shining Shabbos candlesticks.   According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, we possess both a practical and a higher will.  Our practical or pragmatic intellect (ratzon tachton) is concerned with that “bottom line”, with the practicalities of life.  Our higher intellect (ratzon elyon) is the one that aligns with the angels and seeks only understanding of God.  Of these, Rabbi Soloveitchik sees our ratzon elyon as the singular endowment that distinguishes us from the rest of creation.

How do we know when we are striving for ratzon elyon?  After all, it is not as if there are objective markers that guide the way, like the mile markers along highways that tell us how far we’ve traveled.  The way we know, the only way to assess our place or our direction?  The answer is quite simple.  Does our perspective align with mesorah?  Do our actions comport with mesorah?  If the answer to those questions is “Yes” then we can be certain that our thinking and our actions are na’aseh v’nishma and not simply the words and actions that will win us popularity in a fic