What is the phrase that identifies us most as a nation? What would be the slogan of the Jewish people? What is our motto? Nowadays, perhaps the first reaction might be «Am Yisrael Chai» (The people of Israel live), affirming our existence and our perseverance against adversity. Perhaps before the creation of the State of Israel, it could have been «LeShanah Haba veIerushalaim» (next year in Jerusalem), showing the faith and hope of our people. Since the beginnings of Zionism (and the Maccabean movement), we could cite «Jazak veEmatz» (be strong and brave). Or perhaps those first words that every Jew learns «Shemá Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad», as a symbol of our monotheistic faith.
I would like to suggest another expression today that could well be the motto, the slogan, of our people: «Naase veNishmá» (we will do and we will hear). The context is the end of Parashat Mishpatim. Last week we read the «Ten Commandments» and this week we read a large number of other mitzvot, more than 50, also given at Mount Sinai to the people of Israel. Upon concluding the delivery of all these laws, the people of Israel respond unanimously, in the first person plural, «Naase Venishmá – We will do and we will hear» (Ex. 24:7). A few verses earlier, the people of Israel had said «Naase», we will do, committing to fulfilling the divine commandments. Now they repeat the Naase (we will do) but add the Nishmá (we will hear). That is the commitment of the people of Israel, that is the motto that I propose you to think about tonight: we will do and we will hear.
Already from ancient times our sages noticed the order of this verse. Normally one would listen first and then commit to doing. One listens to a job proposal and then signs the contract. One first meets their partner, falls in love, and then gets married. We do not usually commit to doing something without first having listened, studied, understood «what we are getting into»… however, the response of the people of Israel at the foot of Sinai reversed the senses: first we will do and then afterwards we will hear-study. The commitment to action comes before understanding! A countercultural idea, a genuinely Jewish idea that goes against our common sense and how we usually act in the world.
This is how the traditional commentators understand this notion, the people of Israel by affirming Naase veNishmá commit first to fulfill and then later to delve into the meaning of the act. This is, in my humble reading, the Jewish motto par excellence, what should characterize us as a people: action before understanding.
Learning to Trust: A Sign of Trust and Humility
According to our teachers, this response shows blind trust, absolute fidelity of the people. They trust both in God and in Moses that they do not question. This is the trust that we must try to regain as a people and in our personal relationships. If we truly love, respect, and trust someone when they tell us something, our intuitive response should be to do first and then understand. Of course, it is a duty to understand, study, inquire, rationalize, and so on; Nishmá has a place in our Jewish culture but before comes Naasé. When a father asks something of his son, the son should immediately respond and do what is asked, not hesitate, ask why, or start investigating on the internet if what the father asks is correct or not; we must establish relationships of trust, love, and respect strong enough to always respond with Naase and then yes, after the action, it is the obligation in this case of the father to explain the rationale and the why. The same between partners, not to doubt the other, understand that if someone asks you something there is a deep reason, we must perhaps annul our instinct to «doubt everything», to always «want to know why» first and respond with Naase to later reach Nishmá. Naase veNishmá teaches us to trust.
Imitating the Angels: The Chutzpah of the Angels
Rabbi Elazar said: When the Jewish people accorded precedence to the declaration «We will do» over «We will hear,» a Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Who revealed to my children this secret that the ministering angels use? As it is written: «Bless the Lord, you angels of His, you mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, hearkening unto the voice of His word» (Psalms 103:20). At first, the angels fulfill His word, and then afterward they hearken. (b. Shabbat 88a) Avivah Zornberg (The Particulars of Rapture p.303) describes that this attitude of first doing and then hearing demonstrates a kind of rashness, of rushing like a child, of hastening… however, the Talmud takes it as a compliment and tells us that this is how we resemble the angels, who do first and then hear. This is for me the power of action, not only to believe in who commands but in ourselves, in knowing that we have the ability to do it, that we have an internal power and strength that will allow us to face whatever challenge is presented to us even though we may not yet know how. Rashi says that we are not like servants who first evaluate the task asked of them and then perform it, the Jewish people trust themselves enough that when faced with a challenge they first say «yes» and then, only afterwards, wonder how. Naase veNishma teaches us to trust ourselves, it is the chutzpah of the Jewish people to know that we can face any challenge even though we still do not know how.
A People of Doers, Not Philosophers
The Kotzk Rebbe suggests that philosophers and great thinkers live in the world of Nishmá, of listening, of speculating, of thinking, of pondering but that they rarely descend to the world of Naasé, of doing. In this sense, the Jewish people are a people who do not stay in the ivory towers of knowledge, of philosophical speculation but descend to the earth of the path, of doing. That is why our Jewish law is called «Halachah», literally «the way». We make our way by doing, we do not stay in speculation but we act. By acting, we learn, even from our mistakes. Naase veNishmah reminds us that we are a people of doers and not a community of philosophers.
The Two Crowns: For Doing and For Understanding.
Rabbi Simai taught: When Israel accorded precedence to the declaration «We will do» over the declaration «We will hear,» 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to «We will do» and one corresponding to «We will hear.» (b. Shabbat 88a).
Naase never nullifies Nishmá, Naase cannot be dissociated from Nishmá. By committing ourselves to doing, we also commit ourselves to delving into, listening, investigating, understanding, comprehending, and studying. The Talmud tells us that the people of Israel received two crowns when pronouncing Naase veNishmá, one for their commitment to action and the other for their dedication to study. After the action, understanding must necessarily come to add value and meaning to what we do. Naase veNishma invites us to follow action with understanding.
Feelings Follow Actions
The author of Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah #16) taught: «Ajarei Hapeulot nimshajim HaLevavot – Behind the actions go the feelings». The society in which we live teaches the opposite: first one feels (Nishmá) and then one does (Naase). Judaism teaches us the opposite, that doing will produce feelings in us. In this regard, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments: «[N]a’aseh venishma means, “We will do and we will understand.” From this they derive the conclusion that we can only understand Judaism by doing it, by performing the commands and living a Jewish life. In the beginning is the deed. Only then comes the grasp, the insight, the comprehension. This is a signal and substantive point. The modern Western mind tends to put things in the opposite order. We seek to understand what we are committing ourselves to before making the commitment. That is fine when what is at stake is signing a contract, buying a new mobile phone, or purchasing a subscription, but not when making a deep existential commitment. The only way to understand leadership is to lead. The only way to understand marriage is to get married. The only way to understand whether a certain career path is right for you is to actually try it for an extended period. Those who hover on the edge of a commitment, reluctant to make a decision until all the facts are in, will eventually find that life has passed them by.» Naase venishma reminds us that one lives Judaism by experiencing it and not by studying it.
The Apple Tree: The Fruit Before the Leaves.
Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: «As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. Under its shadow I delighted to sit and its fruit was sweet to my taste» (Song of Songs 2:3)? Why were the Jewish people likened to an apple tree? It is to tell you that just as this apple tree, its fruit grows before its leaves, so too, the Jewish people accorded precedence to «We will do» over «We will hear.» (b. Shabbat 88a)
This Midrash gives a new meaning to the apple with honey on each Rosh Hashanah. We, as the people of Israel, are like that apple that first bears fruit, actions, and then adorns itself with studies, explanations, with the leaves of the tree. We start each year remembering that we must put action before understanding, that we must trust the one who invites us to act and our own ability to respond, that actions will shape our hearts, that we are not philosophers but doers, that Jewish life is lived in action and not in contemplation, that as the Talmud says study is important only if it leads to action.
This is for me the eternal motto of Judaism «Naase veNishmá», we say it in plural, as a nation. This is our «leap of action» in terms of Abraham J. Heschel. This is my invitation, to encourage us to act, to break prejudices, may action lead us to understanding and study, may this be our commitment in this 2024, to do before understanding.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Uri