Linda Hirschhorn
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© 2022 Linda Hirschhorn

I would have liked to call this sermon “Listen before you leap vs. Leap before you Listen” based on the texts I will examine tonight, but of course it doesn't have the cachet of the proverb 'look before you leap.' Acting with deliberation vs. instinctual acting, is what this sermon is about:

There is a dramatic moment in exodus when the Israelites receive the Torah at mt sinai and they respond with the words.’ “na’aseh v’nishma”, –“We will do and we will hear”(or we will listen) Two promises: first to observe the laws of the Torah, and afterward to study these laws.

The order is crucial. They promise to keep the Torah, even before knowing or understanding why. According to the Rashbam: 'While wisdom is usually acquired through study or contemplation, there exists in us an intuitive knowledge that requires no formal education'. For the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai, he says, it was not only Torah and mitzvot that were revealed. People also discovered their inner essence so that they could intuitively proclaim, "We will follow our natural essence, and we will do, unhindered by any outside interference. Over the centuries the rabbis have said – that, a person who performs a mitzvah without focusing on its significance without even understanding it has in most cases fulfilled their religious obligation.
Traditionally na'aseh v'nishmah has been viewed or understood as the watchword of faith- no questions asked- just do it. Call it blind faith if you will.

So it's a little bit strange to encounter a seemingly contradictory sentiment in Nitzavin where it says yashmienu v'naasenah- we will hear it and we will do it- a complete reversal. We often read this Torah portion on Yom Kippur and it relates how Moses gathers the entire population of Israel together, for one last time. And that's everyone, men women children, water carriers, wood choppers, past present and future and binds them in an eternal covenant with God.
It is the last time that the entirety of the Jewish people would all be in one concentrated location. Once they would enter the Land of Canaan, they would disperse.
Let's look at context Where were we in our history when we uttered the first set of words the Na'aseh v'nishma -- we will do and we will listen?
Well we'd just left Egypt seven weeks earlier.
Consider that you are God and you have what amounts to a ragtag group of formerly enslaved people that you have to turn into a cohesive nation.
The trip to Canaan in reality should only take maybe a few weeks at most. Before completing the trip to Canaan so much needs to happen. Chaos must be turned into organization. The people need some basic civil laws. They are used to a very elaborate and visual form of worship in Egypt, they need different forms of worship
Barely two months into their journey God gives the Israelites the first set of 10 commandments with its moral codes
This moment of revelation was one of our most profoundly spiritual experiences and is the only event in our history where G-d revealed themself to an entire people, as it says in exodus: "And G-d said to Moses, I come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you" (Ex. 19:9).
"And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d, and they stood at the bottom of the mount" (19:17). "And G-d spoke these words saying, I am the Lord your G-d" (20:1). "And all the people perceived the thundering, and the lightning, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking" (20:15). Moses himself emphasizes to the people the uniqueness of this event: "Did ever a people hear the voice of G-d speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard?
At this point in our history God is still the prime mover: The Israelites have no agency as an independent self governing people. They don't yet feel like they are in control of their lives or that they can handle difficult situations that arise in unfamiliar surroundings. God is still in charge.

We escape Egypt because God divides the seas. God defeats the Egyptians-- not us and not by conventional warfare but by a miracle. In their later battle with the Amalakites the bible describes a scene where Moses is on a hilltop with arms upraised. All the people look up with him to Heaven, and are inspired, strengthened, and they prevail. As Bob Dylan sang they still had god on their side . As it says in exodus 14:14 God will fight for you; you need only to be still. We go hungry in the desert - it's God that feeds us - by providing the daily portions of manna
What a difference 40 years can make. In 40 years most of the original refugees have passed on. The new generation knows nothing of slavery. This generation has been toughned by life in the desert and has learned to cope with it and the enemies they encounter. They are ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land.

The terms of Jewish history says Rabbi Jonathan Saks were about to shift from Divine initiative to human initiative. This is what Moses was preparing the Israelites for in the last month of his life in that long series of public addresses that make up the book of Devarim, culminating in what is called the great covenant-renewal ceremony in Nitzavim that I mentioned earlier. It is as if Moses had said: Until now God has led us – in a pillar of cloud and fire – and you have followed. Now God is handing over the reins of history. From here on, you must lead.
“Faith,” says Rabbi Saks, “is no longer waiting for God. Faith is the realization that God is waiting for us. Don’t wait for the world to get better. Take the initiative yourself.”
That is the epic significance of Nitzavim, read towards the very end of the year. It is about getting ready for a new beginning: Which makes this portion appropriate to read just before the New Year and on Yom Kippur as we ready ourselves for our own personal new beginnings. The 15th century scholar Abarbanel has described this last covenantal gathering as a transtion from receiving Torah under coercion to receivng it by choice.
Let's look at the actual text that precedes yashmienu v'naasehnah (we shall listen and we shall do it)
the laws are not to be found in heaven or across the sea – they are very close to you- in your mouths and in your hearts and your hearts you know to do it...
At first glance this certainly seems to confirm Rashbam's understanding that we have an intuitive grasp of the mitzvot its part of our inner essence. So we still have this question why does it say here - let us hear it first then we will do it.

There is a great story the Talmud offers us by way of explanation.
The rabbis are arguing whether a certain oven is susceptible to impurity. Rabbi Eliezer says its not, the others disagree
R. Eliezer is a bit annoyed and points to a carob tree and says: this carob tree here will prove my point. Lo and behold the carob tree suddenly uproots itself and moves off a few hundred yards.
The Rabbis shrug their shoulders. They say carob trees don't prove anything.
R. eliezer gets a little more hot under the collar and says if I'm right this aqueduct will prove it. And indeed water begins to flow backwards.
The Rabbis say: you can't prove anything from an aqueduct.
A very frustrated R. Elieser says listen you guys says if the law is as I say it is Heaven will prove me right.
And straight from heaven they hear a voice saying: What do you want from him? R. Eliezer is right
And that's when Rabbi Joshua gets up and : “The Torah is not in heaven!” We're not paying attention to heavenly voices. He looks up, and I can imagine him shaking his finger at God and I can hear him say, stay out of this. You yourself told us at Sinai, and you wrote it into the Torah “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
In a coda to this story its described how God reacted to this moment: God smiled and said : ‘My children have triumphed over Me.
God likes people thinking for themselves and making their own choices.
The laws, the Talmud is saying are understood and enacted by the people, they do not come from heaven.
Indeed all of Rabbinic Judaism is about studying and interperting laws. We are now a conscious, organized people with agency. We've got judges, we've got leaders, all of us now have the ability to make informed decisions. It is at this stage we begin to construct out identity, forged by our choices.
We know this because right after these verses about the laws not coming from heaven we come to the well-known phrases:
Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live. The torah makes it very clear. We have agency, we have choice.
So the question remains why is na'aseh v'nishma so well-known and considered a cornerstone of our faith. Why this phrase? What is faith?
Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky- distinguishes between faith and belief. Here is what she says: “The statement that I believe something to be true communicates that you know something is true. The statement that I have faith that something is true suggests that you desire or suspect something is true.” “Belief,” Rabbi Amy says “is confined by only what is known or can be known—and is at risk of dogmatism. Faith on the other hand invites introspection and study.” Yashamineu, v'naasehnah
“We need leaders who might strive to hear God, but they know they don't speak for God.” Rabbi Amy says “I seek religious leaders who are sensitive to the mysteries of our existence and who are poets that can express those mysteries. Faith may lack certainty, but it incorporates hope – hope about what is possible but not necessarily what is.”

So I pose the question once again: Why has naa'seh v'nishmah come to epitomize our commitment to the Torah? And perhaps another question: When do we, in our lives today, act from blind faith? How does it serve us?

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