Mishpatim: A continuum of doing and listening

Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim are seen as a continuum.

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is read on February 13, Illustrative photo (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is read on February 13, Illustrative photo
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
We are informed that Parashat Mishpatim is a continuation of last week’s parsha (Torah portion) because Mishpatim begins with the letter vav, which means “and.”
Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim are seen as a continuum. At Sinai, having been liberated from slavery weeks earlier, the Jewish people learn freedom is not unbounded. While freedom is having the agency to choose, the mitzvot/commandments remind us those choices do not operate in a vacuum. Our freedom should navigate through a web of influences including ethical, sociological, societal, familial, communal, national, global and environmental – summed up by Hillel as “love your neighbor as yourself” (B.T. Shabbat 31b). The response of the Jewish people, in this week’s parsha, to freedom defined by responsibilities, the mitzvot, is na’aseh venishma (Exodus 24:7).
Na’aseh venishma can be translated as “we will do and then we will hear/understand/obey.” In last week’s parsha immediately before the giving of Aseret Hadibrot, the 10 sayings/commandments, the people say na’aseh, we will do, without venishma (Exodus 19:8). In this week’s parsha at first they also only say na’aseh (Exodus 24:3). Immediately after revelation, the people saw thunder, an experience beyond the normal function of senses and cognition (Exodus 20:15) – an experience that took time to process.
Rabbi Daniel Kamesar comments, “My guess is there was no thunder and no lightning. The awareness broke on the people so powerfully that that was the only way they could express it. What happened was far more than thunder and lightning (the text tries to say this when it says they saw the thunder); it was an explosion of the heart, mind and soul. It was silent.” Once the experience of revelation, however it happened, sank in, they could then say na’aseh venishma.
This may also help us understand their counterintuitive response, saying they would do before understanding. This raises the question of religious deeds and the meanings behind them. Writing a thousand years ago in Hobot HaLebabot (Duties of the Heart), the Spanish theologian Bahya ibn Paquda said the doing, serving God, is paramount over understanding. Echoing ibn Paquda, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz advocated the only reason we should do the mitzvot is because we are commanded to by God – fulfilling a mitzvah is both a means and an end. In his eyes, trying to find meaning in them is a form of idolatry. His sister Nechama Leibowitz, the brilliant Torah commentator, wrote that the mitzvot elevate and transform our human activities into an acknowledgment of God as our Creator.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, the Maharal, taught some 500 years ago that for most of the mitzvot we should first “understand and comprehend the essence” before we do them (Derush al Ha-mitzvot 50a).
More recently, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his exquisite Pikuach Neshama (To Save a Soul):
“God cannot be grasped by the intellect. The Jews have a different way: ‘We will act and we shall understand.’ Reaching God – the understanding – arrives together with the act, emanates from within the act (the Kotzker rebbe). When we fulfill a mitzvah and perform a desirable action, we achieve the cleaving of humanity with God. It is as if our actions, in the depths of our existence, ‘we see the thunder.’”
As we have seen, while ibn Paquda and Yeshayahu Leibowitz place primacy on doing mitzvot, the Maharal emphasizes a cognitive alertness when it comes to the mitzvot. Heschel offers a more nuanced stance: By carrying out the mitzvot we intuit deeper, holier elements of reality, in the same way a smell can trigger a memory; a musical cord, a feeling.
There is also something utilitarian about na’aseh venishma. After we do something, we then understand if we did it correctly or not. As I began writing this commentary, my wife Alison was sitting next to me, checking if she had ordered the correct shoelaces for her hiking shoes. With shoelaces criss-crossing on hiking boots, she guesstimated the length. Only after she replaced the old laces with the new laces was she able to understand she had chosen the correct length.
All of these explanations have their merits, and I could end this commentary with this line as one finishes wrapping a present with the tying of a ribbon bow. But Torah study is not always so neat. Later this summer, we read, in Parashat Va’etchanan, the people say, veshamanu veasinu meaning “we will hear and we will do” (Deuteronomy 5:24). That is to say, they will first have understanding and then act: the very opposite of this week’s reading! In Va’etchanan, Moses, 40 years after the theophany at Sinai, recounts to the people what had taken place, but he makes a number of changes to how it is recorded in the Book of Exodus.
How could Moses do that? In a class at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Jeremy Benstein, now the managing editor of the 929-English website, taught the difference for Moses was having different audiences and therefore different pedagogical approaches. In Exodus he was speaking to a group only 50 days out of slavery, while in Deuteronomy it was a new generation with similar yet different needs. In Exodus, the people still carried slavery with them, and so the emphasis on doing was primary, but 40 years later, as the people were getting ready to reenter the land and create a civilization there was the need, in the words of Rabbi Elie Munk, to place priority on study/understanding before doing the mitzvot (Exodus 24:3).
That could be the last word, as the Book of Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books of Moses. And yet, as we know, the reading of the Torah is a continuum, and we return to the Book of Exodus annually as we do at this time of the year. Our different ways of telling and teaching reflect different realities, different needs, different understandings addressing the continuum of our own lives. 
The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.