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Torah Attitude: Parashas Yithro: Do first, listen later?


The Jewish people committed themselves not only to do G'd's will, they also committed themselves to listen. We acted with complete faith. G'd is greater than any doctor we trust. The word used in Hebrew for listening has three interpretations. The acceptance of the Torah as G'd's instructions for living is not based on our personal understanding. A person that takes upon himself this acceptance will be rewarded as if he fulfilled all the commandments. By making a firm decision to turn around and accept the yoke of the commandments, one is considered like a different person.

We will do

In this week's Torah portion, G'd instructs Moses to speak to the Children of Israel telling them to prepare for the giving of the Torah. To this the entire nation responded in unity and declared, (Shemos 19:8) "Everything that G'd has said we will do." The Ramban explains that at this point the Jewish people committed themselves not only to do G'd's will, they also committed themselves to listen. As it says in next week's portion (Mishpatim, Shemos 24:7) "Everything that G'd has said, we will do and we will listen!". Rashi explains (ibid 24:1), that although this portion appears later in the Torah, historically it took place prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Complete faith

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates that a Sadducee once made a jeering remark to Rabba, one of the Rabbis of the Talmud: "What a rash people you were when you let your mouth go ahead of your ears. You ought to have listened first and if you liked it you would accept it, and if not you should not have accepted it." Rabba answered, "We acted with complete faith." As Rashi explains, we acted out of love for G'd, and trusted that He would not demand anything of us that we could not handle.

Trusting the doctor

This is comparable to a person seeking advice from his doctor. He confides in his doctor and he will trust the doctor and listen to his advice. He accepts that the doctor is an expert in his field with an unblemished record of service to his patients. If the doctor happens also to be a friend for many years, this only enhances the level of trust. G'd is greater than any doctor we trust. Based on this analogy, we can understand why the Jewish people accepted the Torah without first feeling that they had to investigate what was expected of them. But it still does not seem to make sense that their acceptance was formulated by saying "we will do and then we will listen". This appears to be out of sequence. It would have been more logical for them to say that they would first listen to whatever G'd told them and then do it.

Three interpretations

The word used in Hebrew for listening has three interpretations: first, it can mean a physical listening with the ear (see Targum Onkelus Shemos 18:1); second, it can be interpreted as an acceptance (see ibid 24:7); third, it can refer to a deeper understanding (see Eben Ezra ibid 15:26). In English we say "do your hear me" which can be taken literally to hear. It can also mean to "accept my words" or to understand them.

Accepting recommendations

With this in mind we can understand that the Jewish people did not mean to say that they would first do and then hear what they had to do. Rather, they expressed that they would do what G'd commanded them, and then they would try to understand why they had to do it and the deeper meaning of what they were doing. As the Beis Halevi brings from the Zohar that "we will do" refers to the fulfillment of the commandments and "we will listen" refers to the study of the Torah. The Jewish people were acting like the patient who trusts his doctor and accepts the doctor's recommendations to take the medications and even undergo surgery. The patient does what the doctor tells him because the patient trusts that the doctor knows what will cure his ailments. The medication may be bitter at times and the surgery may hurt but the patient is willing to endure whatever is necessary to heal him or save his life. Were the patient to turn around and insist that the doctor explain in detail why the doctor is prescribing a treatment or demand to know how the treatment works, the doctor may respond that it will be necessary for the patient to attend medical school to be able to understand the treatment and it is unlikely the patient would survive before completing the necessary medical courses.

Not based on our personal understanding

The acceptance of the Torah and the commandments was not based on personal understanding. Had the Jewish people at Mount Sinai said, "First we will study the Torah and then we will accept and fulfill the commandments as we understand them", Judaism would have ceased to exist centuries ago. If every Jew would perform this or that commandment according to his or her understanding, this would erode our unity and our acceptance of the 613 commandments. One person would say that, "I like the idea of putting on Tefillin but I don't like the colour black. Why not change to the colour that suits my preferences?" Another might say, "It is beautiful to connect with G'd by putting on Tefillin but I don't have time to do it during the week so I will wait till Shabbos to put them on when I have more time." And so it would be with every commandment.

The Jewish people expressed their readiness to do all the commandments as directed by G'd and then to try to understand and study them to get the deeper meaning behind them. However, our fulfillment of the commandments must never depend on our personal understanding of any particular commandment. Only this readiness guarantees Jewish continuity for all generations.

As if all 613 were fulfilled

There is a second approach how to understand what happened when the Jewish nation accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. In Pirkei Avos (3:12) it says, "Anyone whose deeds exceeds his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. But anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure." Asks Rabbenu Yona, how is it possible that the deeds of a person could possibly exceed his wisdom? How can a person do more than he knows? If a person has not been taught or studied the Torah, is it possible that the person could fulfill the commandments? Says Rabbenu Yona, this Mishnah gives us a new insight providing a beautiful piece of advice for a person that did not have an opportunity to learn until now. "Don't worry", says the Mishnah. "Just accept upon yourself that you are ready to do whatever you are being taught from now on, and you will not turn away from any Torah law that you will learn in the future. As soon as you take upon yourself in full sincerity this acceptance, it will be considered and you will be rewarded as if you fulfilled all the commandments." This is what the Mishnah means: "anyone whose deeds exceeds his wisdom". Anyone who accepts upon himself to fulfill all the commandments even if he does not yet have the knowledge and therefore cannot yet fulfill them. Nevertheless, it is considered as if all the good deeds have been done and he will be rewarded for his good intention and acceptance. As our sages say, (Avos D'Rabbi Nathan): "Anyone whose deeds exceeds his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. As it says: 'We will do and we will listen'." The Jewish people at Mount Sinai prefaced their doing with their listening, meaning that they accepted upon themselves immediately to do whatever G'd would command them. At that moment they received the Heavenly rewards for every single commandment which would be taught to them later. So will every individual be rewarded at the time of acceptance even before fulfilling the commandments.

Becoming a different person

In Gates of Repentance (Gate 2, para.10), Rabbenu Yona elaborates further on the same subject. Even a totally illiterate person can in one instant leave total darkness and enter into great light. By making a firm decision to turn around and accept the yoke of the commandments, and do whatever is being taught, one is considered like a different person. He has acquired for himself the merit and the reward for all commandments that he will do in the future. Prior to the exodus from Egypt, Moses instructed the Jewish elders regarding the laws of the Passover offering. As Moses finished his lecture, it says: (Shemos 12:28) "And the Children of Israel went and did as G'd commanded Moses and Aaron " Our sages, quoted by Rashi, ask a question regarding the meaning of "they went and they did as G'd commanded." These instructions were given on the first day of the month of Nissan (see ibid 12:1-2) and were only to be followed on the 14th of Nissan. So how can it say that they did as G'd commanded immediately after Moses' lecture? To this our sages answer that since they accepted upon themselves to do these instructions, it was already then considered as if they had done it. Continues Rabbenu Yona, when a person reaches such a commitment, he will continuously seek to understand and learn so that he will be able to actually fulfill what he has taken upon himself. This is how our ancestors committed themselves at the revelation at Mount Sinai when they accepted the Torah with the 613 commandments. And this is how every Jew has the privilege and ability to accept upon himself the total gambit of the commandments and immediately receive the reward for all of them.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel