Parasha Mishpatim: Hearing is believing

Why is it only now, after the major legal portion of the Torah has been communicated to the Israelites, that God enters into His covenant with them?

mishpatim 88 (photo credit: )
mishpatim 88
(photo credit: )
PARASHA: MISHPATIM "And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it into the ears of the nation; and they said, 'Everything which the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall listen.' And Moses took the blood [of the sacrifices just offered] and sprinkled it on the nation. He said: 'Here is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has entered into with you on the basis of all these words'" (Exodus 24:7, 8). Why is it only now, after the major legal portion of the Torah has been communicated to the Israelites, that God enters into His covenant with them? Wouldn't it have been more logical to establish the covenant at the initial Revelation, or even at the splitting of the Reed (Red) Sea - miracles which took place before the eyes of an entire nation - rather than after three chapters and 100 verses of dry legalism given to Moses alone? After all, the covenant, like the two great miracles we mentioned, was effectuated by the entire nation which, upon "seeing" God's power, is being asked to commit itself to that God. "Israel saw the great hand with which the Lord performed against Egypt; the nation feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord and in Moses His servant" (Exodus 14:31). Yes, seeing is believing, as the text testifies. But seeing is not yet understanding. Our eyes see only the externals of events as they occur, and of individuals as they act. We don't always understand what lies behind events, or what caused the individual to do what he did and how that particular event or action will affect our thoughts and activities. Seeing leaves a superficial impression, and such impressions fade only too quickly. Hence, only three days and two verses after the Song at the Sea, the Israelites again complain against Moses at Mara because the water is bitter (Exodus 15:23,24). And then the Almighty reveals the secret: "If only you would listen, surely listen to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is righteous in His eyes… then all the malaise I inflicted on Egypt will not fall upon you" (Exodus 15:26). God is not satisfied with our seeing; God is waiting for us to listen! In His introduction to the Revelation, God tells the Israelites: "You have seen what I have done to Egypt" - but seeing is not sufficient. "And now, if you will listen, surely listen, to My voice… then you will be to Me a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy people" (Exodus 19:4-6). But alas, even during the Revelation, the Israelites merely "saw the sounds… and the sound of the shofar… The nation saw and trembled and stood from far" (Exodus 19:15). When one sees, one may become awestruck and even frightened, but one remains distant; the sight quickly fades from consciousness. And so only 40 days after the Revelation the Israelites worship the Golden Calf. Apparently it is only when one listens that one becomes truly changed by an experience. WHAT DOES it mean to listen? The watchword of our faith is "Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One." What is the meaning of the first word, shema, hear? B.T. Berachot 15a gives three explanations: the first is to let one's ears hear what one's mouth is saying; the second goes a step further, suggesting cognitive appreciation, insisting that one recite the words in any language one understands; the third expresses the deepest meaning of hearing: to accept the yoke of the Kingship of God, to internalize the implications of the words, to listen in a way that seals one's commitment to their ramifications. To internalize the truth that God is the one unity of the universe, the ground of all being and the purpose of our existence, means to commit ourselves body and soul to His will. This is what it means to listen and thereby enlist oneself wholly and lovingly. We are not the People of the Sights; we are the People of the Book. And the Book consists of words which speak out to us. The Book is read and calls out to us to change. A book must be read, heard, absorbed until our personalities are changed from the inside out (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch says the two-letter root of shema is ma, intestines). We must internalize God in our kishkes. The Israelites apparently interpreted the miracles they saw as what God was doing for them; the Book of Laws told Israel what God wanted them to do for Him; the Book explained the purpose behind the events, His desire for every individual to be free, His demand that every individual be moral. The sights impressed the generation of the Exodus, but the Book is a legacy for all time. Hence the Almighty waits to enter into the covenant until we cry out "we shall do and we shall listen." That is, we shall not merely see but we shall hear, internalize and change under the influence of the Divine words. And this pledge only comes when Moses presents the Book of the Covenant to Israel. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.