Hearing and Doing

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Hearing and Doing


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



            In last week's discussion, we dealt with how the Torah frames Ma'amad Har Sinai as a second act of Creation.  By dividing the text from the stories preceding it, the Torah allows the Revelation to be read as a new beginning.  We saw the Ma'or va-Shemesh's interpretation of how this fissure not only served a literary purpose, but served a theological function as well.  He raised the question as to how the people could claim, "All that Hashem has said, we shall do and we shall hear!" before the Giving of the Torah, even though they had not yet heard God speak.  In response, he suggested that even those commandments that we would call "natural law" receive additional potency and meaning as divinely given commandments, and remain social mores no longer.  Just as the text needed to "start over" and reframe the story, so too the Jewish people needed to reframe their previous performance of commandments within the context of their new relationship with God.


            Rabbinic literature is unstinting in its praise of the Jewish people's response, "We shall do and we shall hear (na'aseh ve-nishma)!"  Noting the apparent reversal of the logical order, the Talmud states:


When the Jewish people said, "We shall do," before "We shall hear," six hundred thousand angels came down to attach two crowns to each Jew, one for the act of doing, and the other for the act of hear … and a Heavenly voice cried out: "Who revealed to My children this secret, which the ministering angels use?  For it is written, 'Bless G-d, His angels, who are mighty of strength, and DO His word, to HEAR the voice of His word,' (Tehillim 103:20) – first they do, and then they hear."   (Shabbat 88a)


At first glance, the Talmud appears to be praising a form of very thoughtless, almost reckless behavior.  Rashi notes this, stating that normally servants  "first listen to the command, to find out whether they are even able to do it or not."  In the same passage, the Talmud places this criticism in the mouth of the Sadducees.  They label the Jewish people as amma paziza –"a rash people, for whom the mouth passes before the ears … You should have listened in order to know whether you were able to accept."  Yet, this behavior becomes angelic – beyond normal human capabilities.  Their willingness to do before hearing demonstrates willingness for action, even before comprehension.


            If the Jewish people deserve praise for their willingness to do before hearing, what value does the act of hearing have?  We could respond and suggest that hearing is a purely utilitarian function – in order to be able to do, one must hear what to do.  The Rabbis debate in the Talmud whether the act of study is greater than the performance of commandments, or whether the performance is greater than the study.  In typical Talmudic fashion, they conclude that study is greater, for it leads to performance.  However, the Talmud was clear that each Jew received two crowns for their declaration: one for the action, and one for comprehension.  What value does hearing after the fact serve?


            We alluded to the approach of the Ma'or ve-Shemesh above.  "Na'aseh (we shall do)" refers to the commandments given previously, which were to be performed within a new framework, as part of a larger relationship with God, as opposed to the discharge of societal requirements.  Once that occurred, the Jewish people were ready for the second stage of their relationship with God – "Nishma (we shall hear)" – starting afresh, waiting for the new sections of the Torah to be given.  While the "doing" may overshadow the "hearing," it cannot erase it entirely.  Another 19th century Chassidic thinker, the Sefat Emet, places even greater emphasis on the act of hearing.  His interpretation begins discussing the ruling (found at the beginning of our parasha) about an indentured servant who so loves his master that he refuses to leave for freedom when proffered the opportunity, and the rabbinic explanation of his punishment:


If the servant states, "I love my master and my wife and children; I do now wish to go free," his master shall take him before the judges.  He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall remain his slave for life.  (21:5-6)

Why is the ear singled out of all the parts of the body (for piercing/punishment)?  For God stated, "The ear that heard on Har Sinai 'the Jewish people are My servants,' and yet he went and acquired a master – let that ear be pierced!!"  (Kiddushin 22b)


Why should the servant's ear be mutilated?  When the slave went to get himself a new master, it was an action, not an act of hearing.  When the Jewish people stated, "We shall do and we shall hear," they expressed a desire to go beyond the simple fulfillment of the commandments ("Na'aseh - we shall do" alone).  "Nishma - we shall hear," meant that they would hold themselves ready at all times for further revelations or understandings of what God wanted.  They would commit themselves to listening for not how to perform the commandments, but also how to ensure that their performance of the commandments corresponded to God's will.


            Hearing assumes a greater meaning than simply ferreting out the details of how man is to execute his daily tasks and tasks.  The constant readiness for further communication implies a willingness to ensure that even as commandments are performed, the person does not lose sight of the ultimate purpose of those actions – the creation of a passionate, intimate relationship with God.  The slave who rejects freedom believes that he has discovered an easier mode of service.  However, static obedience is not what God desires.  That person ultimately remains a slave.  In this radical rereading (as compared to the Talmudic understanding that praises the 'blind' obedience of the Jewish people), is not in the placement of "Na'aseh - we shall do" first, but the remembering that even after action, comes.  "Nishma - we shall hear."  The ear – the ability to hear - becomes the symbol of the questing soul that always searches for the will of God, even after the Giving of the Torah.  This approach is echoed in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bretslev:


"Na'aseh - we shall do" – this refers to the revealed, to the commandments that can be fulfilled on one's own level.   "Nishma - we shall hear" – refers to the hidden things that one cannot grasp.  Each commandment has a part that we can fulfill, yet around each commandment, there are other things that belong to the hidden … this is the relationship between Torah and prayer: the Torah can be known to all, while prayer is generated from that enigmatic area which surrounds each commandment …


In Rabbi Nachman's thought, these two dimensions of "We shall do" and "We shall hear" are everywhere, accessible to everyone.  As a person grows spiritually, what was once hidden from him ("nishma") becomes revealed ("na'aseh"); yet simultaneously, a new area of hiddenness emerges before him.  Again, the constant quests for growth, the desire to reveal the hidden truths that permeate our relationship with God become embodied within the Jew's faculty of hearing.  This desire, to encounter both the revealed and the hidden, becomes the hallmark of the Jew who proudly states "na'aseh ve-nishma."