We Will Do and We Will Hear
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We Will Do and We Will Hear

We Will Do and We Will Hear

If the Jews gathered at Mount Sinai were eager to receive the Torah, why the need for Divine coercion?

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Shavuot is the holiday on which we celebrate the receiving of the Torah -- we refer to it in our prayers as "the time of the giving of our Torah."

As we explained earlier (see "Passover: Of Human Bondage"), Jewish holidays are not simply occasions of thanksgiving and remembrance -- they are occasions of renewal and regeneration. Each year God renews the spiritual input that was initiated at the time of the holiday, so that every Jew can regenerate within himself this spiritual connection which is necessary to his well- being as a servant of God.

Shavuot offers a unique input that is particularly related to the regeneration of the spiritual strength required for Torah acceptance. This particular spiritual quality is what we shall now attempt to explore.

THE GIVING OF THE TORAH

The drama of the events at Mount Sinai is well known:

It was the third day, in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning. A heavy cloud was on the mountain and there was a very loud sound of the shofar. All the people in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people toward God out of the camp. They stood at the foot of the mountain. The entire Mount Sinai was enveloped with smoke, for God had descended upon it in fire. Its smoke rose like the smoke of a furnace and the entire mountain trembled violently ... (Exodus 19:16-18)

God begins to give the Ten Commandments, but the Jews panic and beg Moses to ascend the mountain and accept the teachings on their behalf.

Moses came and told the people all the words of God. The people responded with one voice and said, 'All the words that God has spoken, we will do.' Moses wrote down all the words of God. He arose early in the morning and built an altar beneath the mountain, and also twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent youths of the Sons of Israel and they offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed oxen as peace offerings to God. Moses ... then took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the ears of the people. They said, 'All that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.' (Exodus 24:3-7)

Perhaps the best known passage in Jewish literature concerning the covenant at Sinai is the following passage of Talmud:

Rabbi Simai expounded, "When Israel uttered na'aseh before nishma, or "we will do" before "we will hear," 600,000 ministering angels came to each and every Jew and tied two crowns to each Jew, one corresponding to na'aseh and one corresponding to nishma. (Talmud, Sabbos, 88a)

The statement "we will do, and we will hear," amounts to a commitment to carry out God's commandments even before hearing what the observance of those commandments actually involves. Only someone who is totally willing to shape his entire life around Torah observance would be willing to make such a commitment.

To the modern mind, isn't this kind of blind acceptance irrational?

BLIND ACCEPTANCE OR COERCION?

Perhaps we can begin to glimpse the answer to this question by considering a neighboring Talmudic passage nearly as well known as the previous.

They stood at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:17) R'Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said, "This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as though it were an upturned vat and He said to them: 'If you accept the Torah, well and good. But if not your burial will be right here!'" Rav Acha bar Yakov said, "From here stem strong grounds for a complaint of coercion regarding the acceptance of the Torah." (Talmud, Shabos 88a)

This passage would appear to indicate the diametric opposite to the first; far from accepting the Torah willingly, the Jewish people had to be coerced to accept it.

Is there any way to reconcile a willingness to say na'aseh v'nishma with a need to coerce the Jews into accepting the Torah?

The commentators offer various solutions to resolve the contradiction, but we shall discuss the explanation offered by the Maharal in his work "Tiferes Yisroel" (Ch.32):

God had to force the Jewish people to accept the Torah, even though they were willing to accept it without compulsion, for the following reason. The Torah is not a luxury that the world can do without. God was not interested in creating a world where men would spend their time in physical pursuits. He was interested in a world where He would be involved with man in constructing a totally non-physical environment where He and man could co-exist in perfect harmony and co-operation. He endowed man with spiritual capacity so that man could express it by leading a spiritual life, not to make his physical existence more stimulating. The leading of such a life without the Torah is an impossibility. Thus Torah acceptance is as necessary to existence as atoms.

To offer the Torah to the Jews based on their willingness to accept it would create the false impression that it was their enthusiastic acceptance which created the environment in which the Torah was given. They would have been left with the erroneous assumption that the Torah was a dispensable item. Thus God had to force them to accept it despite their ready consent, to hammer home the idea that the alternative of living without it simply does not exist.

But is this so?

Surely 99% of the world's population manages to live quite well without Torah observance? Surely it would be more accurate to say that God is unwilling to tolerate human existence unless some humans accept His Torah, but to declare that existence itself is quite impossible without the Torah seems to contradict everything we see around us! How can anyone possibly defend such an outrageous statement?

To understand what happened we must first explain the nature of free will and the purpose of human existence.

THE CHIMERA OF FREE WILL

Let us imagine for a minute that God created the world and also runs it, down to the level of each individual life, as indeed the Torah maintains. Each person is individually created and packaged by God, so that he is born with precisely determined talents and abilities into an environment that is custom designed uniquely for him.

Some psychologists maintain that free will is a chimera. And in one respect they are right. It is quite true that we all make our own choices without any outward compulsion, but this hardly means that our will is free. For each of us is born with an unbelievably sophisticated calculating machine, our brains, that is perfectly capable of teaching us to optimize any given situation in life we might find ourselves in, factoring in our own unique abilities, character and means. Thus our behavior throughout our lives is totally predictable as long as we follow the dictates of our calculator, which we will surely do as long as we are not stupid or undisciplined. Thus our freedom amounts to the freedom to be stupid and undisciplined.

Let us look at this situation from God's point of view -- and we will see that we have considerable free will, although it might not seem so from our humble beginnings.

God created the human being to accomplish. The name given to the first man was Adam, because he was taken from the ground called the adama in Hebrew; and of course, Eve, was taken from Adam.

The Maharal asks: "Just as it is written that God formed man out of the dust from the ground (Genesis 2:7), it is also written the earth shall bring forth particular species of living creatures, particular species of livestock, land animals, and beasts of the earth (Genesis 1:24). But if all these creatures were also formed from the dust of the earth why was the human being singled out by being named Adam?

The Maharal goes on to explain that the human being was the only one who was created to progress and produce. Elephants and crocodiles haven't advanced much in recorded history. They have not built schools or hospitals, they have amassed no body of recorded knowledge. They live precisely the same way they did at the beginning of time. On the other hand, we have made enormous progress. Aside from appearance and innate capacity there is nothing in common between us and the early man that existed at the beginning of recorded time. Humanity has made incredible progress.

That is the secret of the name Adam -- for of all living creatures only the human being is like the earth. The earth has infinite potential. We have induced it to feed billions of people, when, a few short centuries ago, it had a difficult time feeding a mere few million at most. The key is husbandry, effort, and innovation. The earth left to itself will remain totally inert, but if you put creative effort in to it, it will reveal its potential. Since the human being resembles the earth in this crucial aspect, he is its true child and is the only one of its offspring that merits wearing its name as his identity tag.

But let us now go back and consider how all this progress might look to God. Wasn't it all predictable?

After all it was God who endowed us with the calculating machine in our brain that made all this progress entirely predictable and inevitable given our enormous life force, our powerful urge to survive and improve our lot -- all qualities that were instilled by the creator.

From God's point of view, the human being has produced absolutely nothing novel through all this seeming advance. He has merely moved in a straight line down the most predictable path that would have been mapped out for him by any intelligent observer. If he has any potential for true originality none of this movement is evidence of it.

WHERE FREE WILL LIES

But what can we accomplish that isn't automatically programmed into us? The answer lies in the area of spirituality, and to see it clearly we have only to look at the world we live in.

The most brilliant minds applying themselves with the greatest concentration have only managed to come to the conclusion that the world is a closed system. According to the intelligence of science, we live in a totally self-contained physical world where life has evolved to its present state according to physical laws that account for all observable phenomena.

It is safe to conclude by this point in history that the best human minds applying the most intense sort of human effort will never learn to connect the human being to a world of spirituality. The conclusion emerges that if this is the area in which our untapped potential is located, we can never find it without God's help.

Yet our argument has clearly demonstrated that from God's point of view, this is, in fact, precisely the area where this untapped potential must be located. For this is the only unpredictable area. This is the only sphere of human activity which the calculating machine doesn't seem to automatically point to. Here lies the area of free choice -- whether or not to follow the commandments of the Torah as given by God, commandments which are designed to transform ordinary human life into a spiritual existence.

NECESSITY OF TORAH

Let us now consider the question of the necessity of the Torah to creation once again in light of all this information.

Economists explain that the difference between government bodies and private sector corporations as follows. The object of government bodies, indeed of all bureaucracies, is to perpetuate themselves. If they show evidence of productivity it is coincidental, because to be productive is of secondary importance to them; their main mission is survival. Being government bodies they have no need to be productive; they will always be supported by tax dollars.

On the other hand private sector corporations must be productive in order to survive. No one is interested in bailing them out if they do not justify their own economic existence; in their case the main focus is productivity and survival is the coincidental byproduct.

If this is true in human affairs, why should we expect it to be any different when it comes to God's relationship with His creation? He created it to be productive -- why should he bail it out if it is not?

If all creation manages to accomplish is to follow along the path of least resistance suggested by the computer God supplied and programmed, it merely executes and spits back its original input without producing any profit. As such it has no merit as an economic enterprise. The free market ethic on which our society is based mandates its abandonment on the grounds of inefficiency.

But if we manage to transform ourselves into spiritual beings then creation is being productive. As far as the original input of God-mandated creation, the universe contained no such beings. God did not turn out this type of human on His production line. Such a being was produced by his or her own efforts, following an optional program through freedom of choice.

We are finally ready to answer our original question: Isn't blind acceptance of the Torah -- i.e. "we will do and we will hear" -- irrational?

There is indeed a special spiritual attribute that is linked to Torah acceptance rather than to belief in general. To accept the Torah correctly you have to perceive it not only as desirable but as necessary to existence.

The true meaning of na'aseh v'nishma is that Torah observance is the core of one's life. It is to observe the Torah that one was created, not to eat and drink and survive, and to observe the Torah as well while one is engaged in the practicalities of life. Life must fit into Torah observance; not Torah observance into life. Survival is the byproduct of productivity.

Every Shavuot God is willing to suspend the mountain over anyone who is willing to approach the acceptance of the Torah with the attitude of na'aseh v'nishma. God stands ready to regenerate the spiritual perception of Torah as being the core of one's existence.

Published: May 14, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Susan Porter, June 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Thank you!

Thank you Rabbi Weisz for another insightful article. My husband and I read your parsha articles almost every week.

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