Commitment to Torah

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



Parashat mishpatim



Commitment to Torah

Summarized by Benjamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Conversion of Bnei Yisrael


The parashot of Yitro and Mishpatim describe the various stages and elements involved in receiving the Torah. The Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Biah 3:1) teaches:


“Israel entered [God’s] covenant through three things: circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice… Sacrifice – as it is written, ‘He sent the young men of Bnei Yisrael, and they offered up sacrifices’ (Shemot 24:5) – [meaning], all of Israel offered through their agency.”


The offering of sacrifices was the final step in their conversion, following circumcision and immersion. Without discussing here the halakhic status of an aspiring convert who, during the period of the Temple, underwent circumcision and immersion but did not offer a sacrifice, it is nevertheless clear that the process of receiving the Torah is divided here into two parts. (While Ramban cites a disagreement among the Tannaim in this regard, my assumption will be, in accordance with the literal text, that the second stage of receiving the Torah, at the end of Parashat Mishpatim, was the “covenant of the basins.”)


The fundamental transition from being a gentile to being a Jew was covered in Parashat Yitro. However, even for a person who has entered the covenant of Judaism, there are stages in the levels of his identity. Our Sages expound upon the difference between the nation’s response in Yitro and in Mishpatim. In the preparations for receiving the Torah, we read that Moshe came to the people and they said, “All that God has spoken we shall do” (19:8). In Parashat Mishpatim, just prior to the covenant of the basins, we read: “He took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people, and all the people said, ‘All that God has spoken we shall do and we shall hear’” (24:7). The expression “we shall do and we shall hear” (na’aseh ve-nishma), in contrast to the expression “we shall do,” has become a well-used slogan. Chazal teach that this is a fundamental principle that belongs to the ministering angels, and Bnei Yisrael adopted it; in the midrash, God Himself notes this transfer: “Who revealed this secret to My children?” Of course, what we have here is a clear expression of the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven preceding the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments. The latter is likewise an all-encompassing commitment, but the acceptance of the yoke of heaven is the most basic consciousness in a Jew’s life – “Nullify your will before His will.” This level, which Bnei Yisrael achieved here, had not been attained prior to the giving of the Torah.


From “Na’aseh” to “Na’aseh ve-Nishma” – Then and Now


The question arises – what took place between these two declarations? What caused such a revolutionary change, in such a short time? What led Bnei Yisrael to adopt the slogan of the ministering angels, “na’aseh ve-nishma,” instead of their previous position – “na’aseh”? If we follow the chronological narration of what took place between the original declaration and the new one, we find three elements that point in a certain direction. The first is, of course, the Revelation itself. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the forging of the covenant which it entailed was not simply a case of experiencing an event and then having one’s status change from non-Jew to Jew. The Revelation of God’s glory, the unique sense of desiring closeness to God and at the same time fearing and maintaining distance from Him – the whole immense, awesome experience had the power of effecting not only a legal, halakhic change, but also a real existential revolution: “One who undergoes conversion is like a newborn baby.”


The second element relates to Torah study. I don’t know how much Moshe was able to teach at that time, but there was an involvement in Torah and a studying of Torah, absorbing Torah on the intellectual level and, through that, on the existential level as well. Once the people had embarked on that path, a new dimension opened in their Divine service, in their personalities, in their connection to the Torah which they had received until then in opaque form. Now they began to learn and internalize the details. This internalization meant not only knowing about an ox that gored a cow, but also connecting God’s service with the awareness of “I have placed God before me at all times.”


The third new element relates to the contents of parashat Mishpatim. One can connect to God through studying any realm of Torah. Parashat Mishpatim focuses mainly on the inter-personal relations that serve to mold society. “And these are the judgments which you shall set before them” (21:1) – before whom? On the purely halakhic level, Chazal teach: “Before them – [meaning,] not before the pagans and not before the unqualified.” Torah should be presented to people who are worthy and capable of acquiring and applying it. However, Ramban emphasizes that this is not the only meaning. Viewing Parashat Mishpatim with all its detail as an elaboration of the Ten Commandments, he understands the expression “before them” to mean before each and every individual. Thus, what was added and what brought about the transition from “na’aseh” to “na’aseh ve-nishma” was a combination of three elements: the purely religious experience of the Revelation, with the attendant transformation of personality; the beginning of involvement in Torah study; and the application of Torah at both the personal and the societal level.


These three factors provided the incentive to go beyond the initial stage of acceptance of the Torah to the second stage of sacrifice. While the specific events of the giving and the acceptance of Torah were unique in history, they nevertheless provide a model for later generations, whether on the national level or the individual level. First there is the essence of the message: accepting the Torah, entering the beit midrash, is the beginning of the road; it commences a continuous process of building one’s personality. We learn from the story of the giving of the Torah that there is always room to ascend. Once already “inside” there is still room for growth, for the internalization and strengthening of the covenant.


The same message that arises from the parasha applies to us as bnei Torah. On the one hand, intensive Torah study allows to accept the yoke of Heaven and the yoke of mitzvot. To the extent that a person invests himself in the beit midrash, he will experience this, and this will empower his personality. On the other hand, a person who studies Torah as part of his Divine service – and not just as part of his intellectual activity – will likewise attain new and higher levels of holiness. Third, Torah study allows us to mold a united, solidified nation. This unity has both social and religious importance.


We must ask ourselves to what extent, both personally and communally, we are progressing in the areas of the experience, study and application of Torah. These three elements will help us enhance and develop our Divine service, fear of Heaven, commitment to learning, and social and moral sensitivity. We must measure not only our objective progress, but also our achievements in relation to the possibilities that are open to us. Have we made the most of these opportunities, in terms of our learning, chesed, and Divine service?


We must undertake self-examination and objective evaluation in order to ensure that we will progress from “na’aseh” to “na’aseh ve-nishma,” to further the giving of the Torah and intensify its acceptance.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Mishpatim 5769 [2009].)