Sinai: Receiving the Torah in Practice (June 2011)

Yesterday I read a commentary on Naso which asked why it was that the gift of prince Elishama was special. In the course of this, I read an interesting comment on the symbolism of Efrayim and Manasseh. The commentary was taken from the Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe (trans. Rabbi Zvi Belovski),

The text reads:

“Yosef wanted Menasheh to precede Efraim; that is, he wanted events to follow the order described by the verse: first “depart from evil” and only then “do good.” This, as we would expect, reflected the character of Yosef, who had spent his whole life struggling against bad to achieve greatness. Yaakov, however, chose to bless Efraim before Menasheh. Within the context we have defined, this represents a lifestyle in which one first concentrates on performing good deeds. Then, due to the influx of holiness generated by one’s new mode of life, any evil traits will automatically dissipate. In Yaakov’s view, this approach to life was preferable to his son’s mode of waiting until the bad has been destroyed before worrying about good deeds. In Yaakov’s opinion (which we may assume is the norm) this is the general rule in Jewish life: we must begin our observance of the Torah by seeking mitzvos and learning, assigning a secondary role to eliminating evil. This will follow later, for as the holiness of a Torah lifestyle enters our beings, any bad will be consumed or expelled.”
(From an article here)

This immediately reminded me of the response we made at Sinai:

"Everything that HaShem wants, naaseh v'nishma, We will do, and afterwards we will understand/listen."
(Exodus 24:7)

The implication of both texts is that action produces spiritual activity which is not restricted to the specific deed being done - that the performance of a commandment causes other activities to follow.  It is true that in ritual matters we seek to have proper kavanah and that we are always attempting to be mindful of what we are doing when we perform a ritual commandment. But with many observances (both ritual and ethical)  we are on automatic pilot or too involved in the process to stop to perform any complex intentions.

It seems to me that, most often, the observance of the mitzvot comes before our “listening” to the multi-layered and profound messages they bear and that our “understanding” of them is something which can often only grow if we practice them and allow them to become a living and vibrant part of our response to the Divine Voice of Sinai.

Of course there is a sense in which we can never “understand” the mitzvot but we can always make an effort to “listen” to their message to us on a daily and immanent basis.

I ended the Kuntres M’arat Ha-Lev (May 2003) with the suggestion that the phrase “naaseh v’nishmah” had a special meaning for Jewish Contemplatives.

I wrote:

“Israel’s response at Sinai was/is “We will do and we will hear.” That is most often interpreted with the meaning: Israel hears God’s voice by observing the commandments.

That is most certainly true.
A complementary interpretation occurs to me.
I’m absolutely certain that there are no accidents.
It surely must be of primary significance that the first command in the principal prayer of Judaism, is Shema….Listen!”
( Cave of the Heart p77)

At the time, my intended meaning was that contemplative listening during Jewish prayer was a crucial (and neglected) activity; that the act of contemplative listening should follow our Torah study; that the personal and individual inscription of the Torah of the Heart on our hearts was the task of our generation and of those who would follow. I was suggesting that there was a chronological element to the Torah phrase and that “doing” and “listening” might be taken as being elements in a personal and communal walk towards God through Observance and then through Contemplation.   I was trying to promote the idea that our principal duty as Jewish contemplatives is not  self-centred introspection... but the practice of a religious dialogue in which we develop our attentiveness to God's Voice above all else.

Today, some seven years later, I would not seek to change any of that, but I would like to add something: It seems to me that the Torah text of Exodus 24:7 can also be taken as being a question of our “hearing God’s Voice” in the act of doing what He has commanded and not necessarily after that act or after the study of that act. There is a sense in which we can learn through the physical-practical doing as well as through the mental or spiritual appreciation or examination of it...I have found this to be the case in recent months with respect to davening (liturgical prayer). Previously I had minimised the amount of time spent in liturgical prayer in favour of spending more time in hitbodedut or hitbonenut. Now I am beginning to see that the latter (contemplative prayer) is  more intrinsic to the davening itself than I had realised.

Perhaps this kind of  "physical-practical learning" is a major part of the inner workings of the system of mitzvot which was/is transmitted to us at Sinai.

As Menachem Mendel of Kotsk reminds us: The Torah was given to us at Sinai, but we are invited to receive it anew every day.  This receiving of the Torah is an act of the Spirit, an act of the Body, and an act of the Mind.  But it is always a practical action.
We will do...
And may HaShem speak to us in our actions.
We will listen..
And may we be granted sufficient understanding to know that the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.
So that in doing
We may become more useful to Him.

N R Davies
June 5 2011