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Tuesday
Feb102015

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE!

While last week’s parsha recounted the story of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, some additional details are discussed at the end of this week’s parsha, Mishpatim.

PREPARING FOR SINAI

The Torah recounts the events and communications Moses had with the Jewish people prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments:

Moses came and told the people all the words of G-d and all the laws. All the people answered in unison and said, “All the words that G-d has spoken we will do.”

Rashi explains that this occurred before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. The “words of G-d” Moses communicated were instructions as to how the people should prepare themselves for the giving of the Torah, for example, by not going near the mountain. The “laws” he imparted were the Seven Noachide Laws plus the additional commandments they received earlier at the place called Marah.

The people’s response was an enthusiastic “we will do.”

Moses then wrote down all of G-d’s words (according to Rashi, all of Biblical literature known prior to the giving of the Torah as well as the commandments that had been given at Marah).

The Torah then recounts the events of the next day:

And he arose… and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve stone monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel… He took the Book of the Covenant [as described by Rashi] and read it in the ears of the people, and they said “we will do and we will hear everything G-d has said.”

WHY THE CHANGE IN THEIR RESPONSE?

Commentators have raised the obvious question why they responded by saying “we will do them” to Moses’ initial communication of the commandments yet on the following day when he read the same commandments to them they responded “we will do and we will hear?”

Kli Yakar answers that when Moses initially communicated the commandments to them, they thought that these were going to be the only commandments so they declared “we will do them!” But when Moses read them the Book of the Covenant on the next day, they understood that more commandments were coming so they responded by saying “we will do [the ones we already heard]” and “we are prepared to hear [the additional commandments],” as well.

The difficulty with this view, however, is that, according to Rashi, Moses read them the exact text of what he had told them the day before. What changed their response from “we will do” to “we will do and we will hear?”

A NEW PEOPLE

One approach to answering this question is to realize that the Jewish people underwent a metamorphosis in the time between these two responses. According to Rashi, as related in the Talmud, the entire Jewish nation underwent a ritual conversion that involved Moses’ sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifices that he offered on their behalf, their circumcision and their immersion in a Mikveh.

Prior to their conversion, the Jewish people were not ready to hear more of the commandments. They were only prepared to affirm their commitment to the commandments they had already been given. However, when they went through the conversion process they became spiritually transformed and were ready to hear and accept more of G-d’s commandments.

ANSWERING IN UNISON

Another approach to this question may be based on an answer to a related question.

Concerning the Jewish people’s initial response, the Torah states:

All the people answered in unison and said, “All the words that G-d has spoken we will do.”

However, when they responded with “We will do and we will hear,” the Torah does not mention that they said it in unison. Why not?

The answer lies in the difference between doing and hearing. It is the difference between acting with and without understanding.

When they first heard G-d’s commandments, the Jewish people responded that they accepted everything G-d told them, unreservedly. They did not need to understand the commandments before accepting them. This, indeed, is the foundation of Judaism: accepting G-d’s commands, categorically and unconditionally.

When a group of people declare their submission to a Higher authority they can do it as a unified body. This is so even when there are differences among the people of that group. What distinguishes us from each other is our understanding. No two people think alike, the Talmud states, just as no two people look alike. However, when dealing with simple submission to authority, as servants to our master, we can all stand together as one.

UNITY AND DIVERSITY

When Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people, the Torah states that he read it “in the ears of the people.” This expression implies that he wanted them to understand these commandments so that they would be meaningful to the people. The lesson here is that it is not enough for us simply to accept G-d’s words as His will; we must also study and internalize them until they penetrate and permeate our consciousness.

Once the people realized that G-d would not be content with their simple obedience and total submission to His will, but also that He desired them to internalize His commands, the Jewish people could no longer respond in unison. Each individual brought a different level of understanding to the table. And while they all answered using the same words, each individual’s level of hearing/understanding varied.

ONE ALTAR, 12 STONES

That there was a need to highlight the differences among the Jewish people at this stage is evident from the fact that Moses built both an altar and 12 stone monuments signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. Why the need for the 12 monuments? Why not highlight the unity of the Jewish people instead? Didn’t the Torah, in the preceding parsha, use the singular expression for the encampment at Mount Sinai to dramatize their unparalleled unity? Why does the Torah now highlight their differences?

The answer is clear. G-d wants the Jewish people to exist on two planes simultaneously and integrate those two dimensions into their relationship with G-d and Judaism.

First and foremost, the Jewish people are “one nation on earth.” They are inherently one people based not only on their common history and destiny but also because they possess a common essence rooted in one G-d: their Jewish souls. Their unity came to the fore as they approached Mount Sinai.

This, incidentally, helps us understand an otherwise puzzling passage in the Hagada: “If G-d would have brought us close to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been enough.” Commentators ask what benefit it would have been for us to stand in front of the mountain if we did not also receive the Torah there?

The answer is that the seemingly simple act of just standing at Mount Sinai revealed our inner unity and demonstrated that no matter how different we might be externally, we are and will always be one unified nation.

When that unity is revealed, we appreciate G-d and His Torah in a commensurate manner. We are able to see the essential unity in G-d, notwithstanding His multifarious powers that are evident in our world. We can also grasp the Torah and its commandments in the same unified way. We see the unity of all of Judaism as the expression of a unified Divine will and we commit ourselves to these precepts through our singular submission to His will.

That is the first step.

STEP TWO

However, Judaism doesn’t end there; rather, it begins there. Once we can comprehend that there is one G-d, one Torah and one Jewish people, we are required to see how G-d is able to manifest Himself in so many diverse ways. We also must apply this understanding to the Torah and its precepts in order that we will be able to see the different hues and colors that distinguish one Mitzvah from another. And in doing so, each one of us reveals our individuality, that which distinguishes us from each other and at the same time demonstrates the uniqueness and indispensability of each individual.

When the Jewish nation saw that Moses built one altar along with 12 monuments corresponding to each of the tribes, they realized that a unified submission to G-d would not suffice. This understanding was reinforced when Moses read the Torah in their ears, suggesting that they must understand the words of the Torah to the best of their individual ability. They therefore responded accordingly: “Yes, we will combine both dimensions. We will do as we are told but we will also hear, study and internalize the teachings of the Torah and its precepts.”

YES AND YES!

What happened then is a great lesson that guides us in the way we are to behave in the present as we wait for the Messianic Age to unfold. When preparing for the future Redemption, some might be confused at what they feel is a mixed message.

On the one hand, great emphasis is placed on believing in Moshiach and suspending our rationality. Faith transcends intellect. The Talmud states that Moshiach will come when our minds are distracted from it [Moshiach’s coming]. The Tanya explains that it means that Moshiach’s coming and the future Redemption transcend our understanding. Yet, the Torah, particularly in the mystical teachings of Kabbala and Chassidus, devotes substantial attention to understanding the physical and spiritual dynamics of the future Redemption. Which is it to be? Do we believe with simple faith or do we try to study and understand it?

The answer is, obviously, yes and yes. We must recognize, first and foremost, that when Moshiach and the Age of Redemption arrive, G-d’s transcendent glory will be revealed. Moshiach’s teachings will be so sublime that we can only declare in unison, “Yes, we are ready for Moshiach!” But, in order for us to be prepared for this new age of G-dly revelation, with its new vistas of Torah knowledge, we must transform our exile mindset by study and understanding. Moreover, we must internalize the belief and have the desire for Moshiach resonate throughout our entire being by applying our minds to the understanding of Moshiach and Redemption. 

 

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