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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Spirituality of Na’aseh Ve’nishmah; Shabbat 88a

        Preparing for this week’s festival of Shavuot, I wonder about the real meaning of the unconditional commitment that the Israelites proposed. As they stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they said to Moses; Na’aseh Ve’Nishmah --  “We will DO [observe the Laws] and then we will listen/understand ” [study these laws]. An outsider would think that we have a nation that is unrealistic and quick to make decisions. Personally, I could see how strange it could be to get involved in something without knowing what the rules of game are. Just like being used to have a User Guide Manuel for new items that I buy. First comes the understanding, and then comes the action. Indeed, the Gemara in Shabbat 88a relates that;

 A foreigner (Nochri) said to Rava, "You are a hasty nation, who put its mouth before its ears [when you said 'Na'aseh v'Nishma' and accepted to do the commandments even before you heard what those commandments are]."

         On the other hand, there seem to be some merit to the Israelite statement. The Gemara in Shabbat 88a reflects the idea that the People of Israel have taken upon themselves a special task that deserves an award. For the rabbis, the words na'aseh v'nishmah indicates the worthiness of the Jewish people for divine revelation.

R. Simai lectured: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hear ,' six hundred thousand ministering angels came and set two crowns upon each man of Israel, one as a reward for  'we will do,' and the other as a reward for 'we will hear'.

      But, what exactly made the People of Israel worthy of the divine revelation? Why do they get the reward? The rabbis felt that the Israelite must have been special as they were able to tap into a divine secret and managed to imitate what the angles do. Just as the angels know first to obey and then to understand God's word, so too the People;

R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hear,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them; “Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels?

Another way the rabbis show that the People of Israel were unique is by comparing them to an apple tree. The Gemara cites the verse, "[He is] like an apple tree ("Tapu'ach") among the trees of the forest..." (Shir ha'Shirim 2:3). … just as an apple tree reverses the natural order and produces its fruit before its leaves, so, too, the Jews reversed the natural order at Mount Sinai when they said "we will do" before "we will hear." The implication of the Gemara is that the apple tree is different from all other trees, and so are the Israelite. While other trees produce leaves before fruit, the apple tree produces apples before it sprouts its leaves.

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What is it that was said: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons; in his shadow I like to sit and its fruit is a delight to my palate” (Song of Songs 2:3).  The two lovers in this poem were regarded as God and Israel.  Why were the Israelites compared to an apple tree? Why were Israel compared to an apple? To teach you that; just as the fruit of the apple tree precedes its leaves, so did the Israelites give precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken' [my translation].*

          Perhaps Israel is unique, but I think that each one of us has the same merit. I speculate that the People of Israel could have not reached this point of the “unrealistic” decision if they were not at a high state of a consciousness shift. And so do we, need to reach a special spiritual level to be able to be a doer before a thinker. The People of Israel must have been in a highly meditative state. They were at the moment where they completely trusted the process, mainly – God, and let go of control. They prepared for this time by getting themselves pure. They already established the intention to be there and obey no matter what. This was their time to BE-Come. They were ready to create an identity for themselves, so by challenging themselves, they went beyond the ordinary. They trusted! Perhaps they were able to inject a balance between actions and their intentions, so that their well being could remain intact? Perhaps they found the balance between their relationship to the divine and their own inner sense of well being and trustfulness?

          If I were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, I too, would have chosen to first commit to Doing and then to Understanding. I believe that when we allow ourselves to be spontaneous, putting the intellect away, we may find ourselves in a place of growth and reward. The art of meditation is teaching that indeed, when we depend too much on the intellect it could interfere with our own growth. The intellect does not let us surrender, be fully present in the moment, and Letting Go.  More than that, when we set aside the intellect we create an opening for the divine connection.

          If I were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, surrounded by smoke, fire, light and thunder, I too, would have chosen to first commit to Doing and then to Understanding.  To me, there is nothing unusual to embark on unknown journeys because there is something special by taking risks in life and get onto waters that are challenging. How many times did we take risks by just taking a deep breath and go for the scary, but challenging step? I have been there many times…

          So, now, take a moment, pause and ask yourself – are there new visions for your future that may need a risk? Will you be willing to just act before calculating too much, so that it will prevent you from going ahead?
      *Tosafot observes this is untrue of the apple tree, which grows like all other trees; consequently refer this to the citron tree. As the citron remains on the tree from one year to the next, at which time the tree sheds its' leaves of the previous year, the fruit may be said to precede the leaves.

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo