When I was younger, and I didn't want to do something that one of my parents had planned for me, they would often encourage me to do it anyway, followed by what I imagine they intended as emotional incentive: "You will be glad you did it!" Over time, I grew to resent this sentiment. Being told I would be glad about something after the fact, undermined my own capacity to know what I actually wanted in the moment. It led to years of indecision and second-guessing. (I'm sorry, Mom, I know your heart was in the right place.)
Sometimes I was glad after the fact, but more often I was disconnected from my own intuition. This led to a kind of exile from my own self-knowing. It manifested in a myriad of ways. I had trouble ordering food off of a menu in a restaurant. Do I really want to eat that or will I just be glad about it after the fact? When making major life decisions about my gender. Do I really want to change my name or have top surgery? What if I am not glad about it after the fact?
Needless to say, I was once a very indecisive person. But that is no longer true. In fact, I recently received the feedback from a professional coach that I am too decisive, which was so appreciated. The pendulum has swung too far!
So you can imagine my natural aversion to what is arguably the most central teaching of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. After a series of instructions that read like case law, Moses goes back up the mountain to record all of the Divine instructions. He returns to the foot of the mountain and shares these covenantal instructions with b'nei Yisrael.
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
"Then [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, 'All that the Holy One has spoken, na'aseh v'nishmah - literally, we will do and we will listen'" (Exodus 24:7).
For most of my adult life, I have subconsciously translated na'aseh v'nishmah as, "You will be glad you did it!" You can imagine my natural aversion to this central spiritual tenant.
Many people cite these two words as the moment when b'nei Yisrael actively received Torah, taking on both the relationship and the responsibility. It is described as a moment of spiritual consent. Additionally, it is often referenced as the reason we might consider adhering to otherwise irrational practices, most notably the practices of keeping kosher and the idiosyncrasies of eruvin. More than consent, it suggests spiritual obedience. Not only am I naturally disobedient, but I also appreciate the very real dangers of religious obedience.
But recently, I have been able to approach these words anew. I remember a teacher telling me years ago, "You cannot know the benefits of davenen three times a day until you have tried it for a month." The same is likely true for many of the mitzvot. We cannot know their real benefit in our lives, if we have not lived them for ourselves. I think this is especially true for mitzvot related to personal practices (prayer, food blessings, etc.), but I also think it applies more broadly to interpersonal mitzvot as well, such as visiting the sick or acts of kindness.
When I reflect on the times when I have been disciplined in saying the bedtime shema, laying tallit and tefillin in the morning, or saying asher yatzar after using the bathroom, I realize there are more moments of presence in my day. As it turns out, spiritual disobedience has its limits.
What if na'aseh v'nishmah actually means, we will do these things and we will gain insight through that experience? What if rather than proscribing obedience, this moment in Torah is describing the benefits of spiritual adherence? Benefits that cannot be articulated because they are born of personal experience. They are uniquely yours to reveal, discover, and live by.
As it says in Leviticus,
...וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם
"You shall keep My laws and My rules, and live by them (v'chaim bahem)..." (Leviticus 18:5).
The mitzvot and mishpatim that fill this week's parsha are meant to bring us greater aliveness. Not to undermine our sense of self, but rather to support our self-actualization.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.