Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
In this week's parsha, the Jewish people make the penultimate statement of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness: Na'aseh v'nishma - "Whatever God has spoken, we will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7).
According to the Talmud, the Jewish people received three rewards for preceding the word "na'aseh" (we will do) to the word "nishma" (we will hear). First of all, 600,000 angels crowned every Jew with two crowns: one for "na'aseh" and one for "nishma" (Shabbat 88a).
Secondly, in response to the statement "na'aseh v'nishma," God called the Jewish people "My firstborn child" (Shabbat 89b on Exodus 4:22). Finally, the Jewish people's utterance of "na'aseh v'nishma" caused a Heavenly voice to proclaim, "Who revealed this secret of the angels to My children?" (Shabbat 88a). We see that "preceding action to listening" is an attribute of angels, as the verse says (Psalms 103:20), "Angels do God's word and listen to His voice."
These three rewards given to the Jewish people - two Heavenly crowns, being designated as God's firstborn child, and being compared to angels - are extremely lofty. What was so extraordinary about the statement "na'aseh v'nishma" that caused us to merit receiving these tremendous rewards?
The Slonimer Rebbe (based on Me'or Einayim) shares three approaches in understanding what the Jewish people meant when they declared "na'aseh v'nishma." Let us examine these three different ways of understanding.
The first approach regards the ups and downs that every person experiences during daily life. We must be aware that truly accepting Torah involves doing the will of God not only when we are feeling confident and secure, but also during difficult and challenging times. This is what the Jewish people meant when they said, "Na'aseh v'nishma." Their commitment to following the will of God ("na'aseh") preceded their understanding of the Torah's laws ("nishma").
Failure to understand even logical laws (many of which are found in Parshat Mishpatim) indicates a time of challenge in our lives. The commentator Ohr Gedaliyahu explains why this is so. The laws in this week's parsha seem logical and rational to us not because they are inherently sensible, but because God created us with an innate sense of right and wrong. Since God created us in this way, we have the ability to come close to God and to align ourselves with His will. When a Torah law seems logical to us, it is a sign that we are on the right path - i.e. close to God and aligned with His way of thinking. When we fail to see the rationale behind laws that we have the potential to understand, it is a sign that our behavior has distanced us from our innate sense of right and wrong. The statement "na'aseh v'nishma" is therefore a commitment by the Jewish people to follow the Torah's laws even at low times, when the laws do not seem sensible to us.
The second approach is based on the Talmud's statement (Yoma 28b) that it is possible to serve God even before being commanded to do so. This determines whether we relate to God as a child to a parent, or as a servant to a master. A child, out of love, will do the parent's will without being told. A servant, however, will only perform when commanded by his master. God's failure to command us indicates distance, as we see in the Talmud's statement (Bava Kama 38a), "Greater is one who is commanded than one who is not commanded."
We can suggest a new approach in understanding this idea by means of a parable. Imagine two families. One family insists that the children finish their homework before suppertime, has set bedtimes for the children, imposes curfews, and has all sorts of other rules and expectations. The second family allows the children to eat whenever they want, to stay out as late as they feel like, and does not impose any limitations or boundaries on the children whatsoever. The first family, with its structure and clear expectations, shows that the children's well-being is a top priority. The second family, with its total freedom and permissibility, may actually demonstrate a lack of care for the children. When God commands us, He shows that He cares about our well-being. When He does not command us, it can indicate a distance between us.
The Jews' statement of "na'aseh v'nishma" can be understood in light of this idea to mean, "We will do even before we are commanded." Despite the Jewish people's not being commanded, which could indicate a distance between them and God, they proclaim their intention to fulfill God's will anyway. This commitment demonstrates the eternal love a child has for his parent - the desire to fulfill the parent's will even when not specifically asked to do so.
Our performance of God's will even at low points in our lives, and even when we feel distant from Him, enables us to attain the highest level, which is the third approach. The Torah's 613 commandments correspond to the 613 parts of the physical body, which in turn correspond to the 613 parts of the soul. Just as our bodies do not need to be taught natural drives (eating, drinking, relieving of waste), so too should the soul be able to perform the will of God naturally, without being taught. However, the body's drives prevent the soul from expressing its full potential. Only when we completely purify and refine the body is the soul able to naturally and automatically perform the will of God.
When the Jewish people declared, "Na'aseh v'nishma," they implied, "We can do even before hearing the will of God, because we have purified our bodies to the point where expressing the Divine will comes naturally." This purification takes place only when we are committed to performing the will of God even during the low points in our lives and even when we feel distant from the Divine. If we are able to reach this level, we become like angels, who do not have a body that separates them from naturally expressing the Divine will.
These three approaches will help us to appreciate the greatness of the Jewish people's statement "na'aseh v'nishma," and will show us why the Jewish people deserved the three rewards they received. As we mentioned, the people were given two crowns. This reward corresponds to the first approach in understanding "na'aseh v'nishma": the commitment to following the will of God not only during times when we feel confident and positive, but also during the low points in life. These two extremes - the highs and the lows - correspond to the two crowns given to the Jewish people.
The second reward was God's designating the Jewish people as His "firstborn child." This reward corresponds to the second approach in understanding "na'aseh v'nishma": the Jews performing the will of God even when not commanded. Although not being commanded could indicate distance, the Jews' perseverance despite this possibility demonstrated their investment in building a parent/child relationship with God. God then reciprocated with the second reward: calling the Jews "My firstborn child."
For the third reward, the Jewish people were compared to the angels, who are capable of acting before hearing. This reward corresponds to the third approach in understanding "na'aseh v'nishma": the Jewish people being able to purify their bodies to such a degree that their souls could express the Divine will without any obstacle. Automatically performing the will of God is an angelic quality; hence, the Jewish people were rewarded by being compared to angels.
May we all be blessed to persevere even during the low times, when we feel far away from God, so that we live to be commanded once again in all the mitzvot that depend on the Temple - a time when serving God will come naturally, and we will deserve to be crowned as God's only child.