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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mishpatim: The secret behind the commitment
The Jewish people said, "All that G'd has said we will do and we will listen." A Heavenly voice proclaimed: "Who revealed this secret to My children? This is an expression that the angels use." G'd took the Torah and offered it to every nation of the world but they did not accept it; only the Jewish people were ready to accept the Torah. There was not a single nation in the world that G'd did not go "and knock on their door" to offer them the Torah. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. How could the other nations accept the 613 commandments contained in the Torah if they did not keep the seven Noachide laws? The Jewish people was the only nation ready and worthy to accept the Torah. The relationship of the Jewish people with G'd is one of full trust as someone in love who is ready to do anything requested. When a doctor prescribes a treatment for his patient, who he has been treating for many years, the patient will not feel the need to ask on what basis the doctor suggests the treatment. The Jewish people had full confidence that whatever G'd would expect them to do, He would provide them with the necessary means to complete it. When one observes something from outside, it looks difficult. Once the commitment is made, one will receive the Divine assistance to live up to the commitment.
We will do and we will listen
Towards the end of this week's parasha (Shemos 24:4) it says: "And Moses wrote all the words of G'd." Rashi explains that Moses wrote the portions of the Torah from the beginning of creation up till the revelation at Mount Sinai, as well as the commandments that the Jewish people had been instructed at Marah. When Moses read these portions to the Jewish people they said (ibid 7), "All that G'd has said we will do and we will listen." This seems illogical. It would have been more understandable had the Jewish people exclaimed "we will listen and we will do", as one first needs to hear first an instruction before being able to follow it.
Expression of the angels
The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) teaches that when the Jewish people said "we will listen and we will do" they accepted to do whatever they would be taught even before hearing the details. At that point a Heavenly voice proclaimed: "Who revealed this secret to My children? This is an approach used by the angels, as it says (Tehillim 103:20): "Bless HASHEM, His angels, the strong warriors who fulfill His word to listen to the voice of His word." Rashi explains that the angels are ready to do any of G'd's instructions even before they have been told. They do not need to hear first to determine whether they can accept it upon themselves.
G'd offered the Torah to every nation
In Parashas Vezos Haberachah the Torah relates how Moses blessed each tribe of the Jewish people before he passed away. He introduced these blessings with a brief reference to the revelation at Mount Sinai and said (Devarim 31:2), "G'd came from Sinai and shone from Se'ir. He appeared from Mount Paran …" The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 2b) asks what was G'd doing in Se'ir and Paran? Answers the Talmud, "This comes to teach us that G'd took the Torah and offered it to every nation of the world but they did not accept it; only the Jewish people were ready to accept the Torah."
Eisav, Ammon, Moab & Ishmael did not accept
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Vezos Haberachah) elaborates on this and explains that G'd first went to the descendants of Eisav and asked them "are you ready to accept the Torah?" They said to G'd, "what does it say in the Torah?" G'd answered, "It says, 'You may not kill.'" To this they answered, "Our very being is linked to murder. We are descendants of Eisav, who was a murderer; as it says (Bereishis 23:22), 'And the hands are the hands of Eisav.' His father even promised him (Bereishis 27:40), 'And you shall live by your sword." After the descendants of Eisav rejected the Torah G'd went to the children of Ammon and Moab and asked them if they would accept the Torah. They also asked "what does it say in the Torah?" G'd answered, "It says, 'You may not commit adultery.'" To this they said "our very being is a product of adultery, as it says, (ibid 19:36) 'And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.'" G'd then continued to the descendants of Ishmael and asked them if they would accept the Torah. When they also asked "what does it say in the Torah?" they were told, "It says, 'You may not steal.'" To this they said, "The very being of our forefather was a robber, as it says (Bereishis 15:12) 'and he will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand will be against him." The Midrash concludes that there was not a single nation in the world that G'd did not go "and knock on their door" to offer them the Torah, but none of them accepted it.
Actions louder than words
We have no clear information how G'd offered the Torah to the nations of the world. Our sages teach that every nation has an angel representing it in the Heavenly Court (see Daniel 10:20). It is possible that the Torah was offered to each nation through this heavenly representative. However, there may be another way to understand this Midrash. This is based on the concept that actions speak louder than words. We sometimes find in the Agadaic literature that our sages quote a person, or a group of people, having said something when referring to their actions rather than their actual words.
Not keep Noachide laws
It is interesting to note that when the three nations mentioned in the Yalkut asked what it says in the Torah, each was told one of the seven Noachide commandments. The Yalkut actually continues to say that not only did they fail to accept the Torah, they did not even fulfill the commandments that the earlier descendants of Noah had accepted upon themselves. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 2b) also mentions that the time will come when the nations will complain to G'd why He did not force them to accept the Torah. G'd will then answer them, "The seven commandments that you accepted upon yourself you did not keep, so how could you take upon yourself the 613 commandments contained in the Torah?" In light of that, it is possible that prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, G'd looked down upon every nation of the world and saw that not a single one kept the seven Noachide commandments. The descendants of Eisav were murderers. The descendants of Ammon and Moab were committing adultery. The descendants of Ishmael were robbers. And so it was with every other nation. Their very actions spoke out loud and clear that, as they did not keep the seven commandments, there was no way they could accept an additional 606 commandments.
Ready and worthy
Only the Jewish people had continued to live according to the seven Noachide commandments, passed down through the generations from their patriarchs. Even those who had been influenced by the Egyptians to become idol worshippers had abandoned this practice towards the end of their stay in Egypt. In this way, the Jewish people was the only nation ready and worthy to accept the Torah. However, the question remains how did the Jewish people know to express themselves with the language of the angels, and to exclaim their readiness to do what G'd expected even before they heard it?
We find the answer a little later in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a). The Talmud brings a story of a Sadducee who met the great sage, Rabba, and said to him, "You Jews are an impetuous nation who put your mouth before your ears. You ought to have listened first to see if you could follow the instructions of the Torah and only then accept the Torah." Rabba answered, "We Jews are a wholesome people." Rashi explains that our relationship with G'd is based on complete trust and love. Therefore, we are ready to do anything G'd requests. We are confident that G'd will never demand something of us that we cannot fulfill. That is why the Jewish people did not need to ask what it said in the Torah. The other nations dealt with G'd as a stranger who came to offer his goods. Accordingly, they asked to see what it entailed. The Jewish people, on the other hand, dealt with G'd as someone with whom they had a loving relationship. Our relationship was initiated by the Patriarchs generations earlier, and was already fully developed at the time of the exodus from Egypt, as described in Shir HaShirim. In addition to this we had complete trust in the goodness and kindness of G'd, and we felt secure that He would only ask us to do what was to our benefit.
Doctor and patient
This is comparable to a doctor who prescribes a treatment for his patient, who he has been treating with great dedication for many years. The patient will not feel that he needs to ask on what basis the doctor suggests the treatment. The patient trusts the expertise of the doctor, and even if the prescribed treatment may be difficult and sometimes painful, the patient understands that this is for his own benefit. This was the kind of trust that we exhibited prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai. We had complete trust in G'd and till today we are ready to accept whatever "treatment" G'd "prescribes" for us. As we say every morning in the blessing before Shema that just like our forefathers put their trust in G'd, so do we.
The angels know that, when G'd sends them on a mission, He provides them with the means and ability to complete it. Therefore, they are ready to undertake the mission even before they have heard the instructions. It was this insight that enabled our ancestors to exclaim "we will do and we will listen." Just like the angels, they had full confidence that whatever G'd would expect them to do, He would provide them with all that was necessary to complete it.
Observe from outside
The late Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, once visited Denmark and spoke in one of the local synagogues. He spoke about how many people find it difficult to keep Shabbat, as they feel it would restrict them from many activities they would like to do. However, said the Chief Rabbi, if we analyze it closely we find that it is only people who do not observe the Shabbat who refer to it as being difficult and restrictive. You hardly ever hear someone who actually observes the Shabbat, the way it is meant to be, complaining that it is restrictive. The reason for this is very simple. When one observes it from outside, it looks difficult. But when one makes a commitment, one receives Divine assistance to both observe and enjoy the Shabbat. The same applies to the laws of kashrus, the laws of family purity, as well as any other commandment of the Torah.
Make the commitment
This is what my Rebbi, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead Yeshiva in England, Rabbi Leib Gurwicz, used to teach. He would explain that the real difficulty is to make the commitment. Once we commit, we will receive Divine assistance to live up to our commitment. And this was the secret the Jewish people knew, when they accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. If we internalize this approach, we, their descendants, will be able to undertake to follow in their footsteps and commit ourselves to accept and fulfill all the commandments of the Torah.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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