Saturday, February 2, 2019

Parashat Mishpatim: Na'aseh Ve-Nishma

"Na'aseh Ve-Nishma"
Thoughts on Mishpatim 2019
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And he [Moshe] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that God has spoken we will do (na’aseh) and we will hear (nishma).” (Shemot 24:7)

The Hakhamim taught that Am Yisrael’s declaration of “na’aseh ve-nishma” (“we will do and we will hear”) was a statement of ideal dedication. Defying the instinct to first hear the commands before committing to their adherence, the nation was then inspired to immediate action. Their ability to utter “na’aseh” before “nishma” was, in the eyes of the Rabbis, an expression of absolute devotion.[1] It was, in a way, reminiscent of Avraham’s adherence to God’s first command of “Go forth (lekh lekha)…to the land I will show you” (Bereshit 12:1), and a forebearer of their future wanderings in the wilderness “by God’s word” (Bemidbar 9:18). The activity in these several situations preceded the full knowledge of the particulars.

The worthiness of this approach is difficult to understand, however, as it seemingly debases each of the respective connections to God. In contrast to the strength of a commitment that is grounded in understanding, an uninformed dedication appears naïve or shallow, at best. What, then, was the “greatness” of na’aseh ve-nishma?

Aristotle wrote that the highest pursuit of intellect was theoria, or thought which is “useless,” as it serves no higher aim other than itself. He wrote: “To seek from all knowledge a result other than itself and to demand that knowledge must be useful is the act of one completely ignorant of the distance that from the start separates things good from things necessary.”[2] Whereas “necessary” knowledge is the thought and ideas that inspire another outcome, “good” knowledge stands independent of consequence.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt probed the deficiencies of modern man, she noticed “his trust in the all-comprehensive range of the means-end category,” in his belief that “every issue can be solved and every human motivation reduced to the principle of utility.”[3] She realized, in other words, that our thoughts and actions ignore the “good” and focus instead only on the “necessary.”

Indeed, we spend most of our lives in anticipation of “the next stage” and absent from the precious present. As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky sarcastically commented: “We study hard in high school to get admitted to a top college to get into grad school to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice.”[4] Our lives – from the time we grow out of playing games until the day we retire – are burdened by the constant strain of evaluating our actions by the outcomes they produce.

Hannah Arendt wrote: “Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.”[5] And a life steadfastly committed to a connection with God focuses not on a particular “conclusion” to our individual “stories,” but on the experience of that connection itself.

Every moment along Avraham’s journey to that “place of God’s choosing” was imbued with the intrinsic meaning of connection to God. Instead of the “final destination” inspiring his every step, Avraham was driven by the independent meaning of each step. And Am Yisrael’s confident declaration of na’aseh ve-nishma was likewise a commitment to appreciating a connection to God through action. Although they would only perceive the broader meaning of their deeds in hindsight – nishma, they were nonetheless moved by the independent experience of connecting to God through action – na’aseh.

Na’aseh ve-nishma must remain an ambition for us on our own journeys through life. It is the call to divert our attention from the potential “outcomes” of a life of Torah and focus instead on the experience itself.

[1] See, e.g., Shabbat 88a.
[2] Aristotle, Aristotle’s Protrepticus, sec. B41. Cited by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule, in Action Versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters (Chicago, IL, 2018), pg. 66.
[3] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL, 1998), pg. 305.
[4] Robert Sapolsky, “This Is Your Brain on Metaphors,” New York Times “Opinionator” blog, Nov. 14,2010. <>
[5] Arendt, pg. 192.