24 Iyar 5773 / April 3-4, 2013
In this week’s double portion, we find some of the most theologically challenging verses in our Bible. In particular, we find a number of verses that say that if we follow the commandments, things for us will be great; but if we don’t, we’re told that God will wreak misery upon us, and discipline us seven-fold for our sins. Woah.
This doesn’t seem to suggest a real choice as it relates to accepting the commandments – we’re threatened with severe punishment if we don’t follow them! Given that we so recently left slavery in Egypt in our narrative, it’s hard to understand how exactly being coerced to perform a significant number of new commandments is necessarily all that much better. Rather, it appears like we went from one form of bondage into another, as God brings the Israelites out of Egypt so that they can serve God rather than their Egyptian masters. How do we make sense of this?
Some say that true freedom is the ability to willingly put restrictions on oneself (as opposed to having them put on you by another). In terms of how we stomach what at an initial glance appear to be God-imposed requirements, we can look to Exodus 24:7, which states: “And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that the LORD hath spoken Na’ahseh V’nishma - we will do, and will we hear.'” This passage from the Torah shares that the Israelites knew what they were getting into when accepting the Torah, as it was read for them, and after having heard it, they assented to being bound by it. Thus, the commandments were expected and accepted, so any accompanying consequences wouldn’t have been a surprise. The line “we will do and will we hear” has also been pointed to by traditional commentators as demonstrating the faith that the Israelites had in God, saying that they would do as instructed before understanding what they were doing fully. Some argue that our entire lives as Jews are based on this model of doing first, and then later on with time coming to understand and appreciate.
The reality is that for many of us today, we’re looking for underlying meaning and value in the actions we take – and specifically in our Jewish actions, as without meaning, and outside a framework of commandedness, there’s no real rationale for doing them. While Na’aseh v’Nishma may have worked for our ancestors, it is not as convincing (or workable) a model for many of us today. Doing without meaning leads to disconnect and distaste. Infusing meaning with doing is the secret to success.
This Shabbat, examine the Jewish activities you do on a regular basis. Why do you do them? What are the common denominators that have those activities add meaning to your life? Do you find that you simply do things without really understanding them? If so, what keeps you from dedicating yourself to doing the requisite learning?