By Lex Rofes
Two simple Hebrew words. I have heard them over and over again, from rabbis, Jewish educators, and lay-leaders. At my Jewish summer camp, we shouted it at the top of our lungs at the end of Bir’kat Hamazon every Shabbat. At a Reform congregation where I was a member, it was inscribed in huge letters on the synagogue’s ark.
Na’aseh V’nishma comes from this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Mishpatim. According to the most common interpretation of it (drawn from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer among other sources), the sequence of the words is of the utmost importance. According to this school of thought, the best translation is really “We will accept [God’s commandments], and then we will understand.” The words indicate, in effect, that the Israelites will do whatever the Torah says – even though they don’t even know what that is yet. Many have lauded the Israelites’ behavior in this Mid’rash. That our ancestors were so willing to trust God, obeying a document they hadn’t even read yet, is, in their opinion, praiseworthy.
I can’t agree. The reason is that, in today’s world, injustice thrives. It runs rampant, in our own society and all around the world. That includes the West Bank and Gaza, under military occupation by the Israeli government for almost fifty years. Our relationship to this injustice – all injustice really – cannot be one of “we will accept it, and then we will understand.”
Unfortunately, many of our Jewish leaders in both Israel and the United States want us to adopt that kind of relationship. They want us to look at the ongoing occupation as a necessity. Perhaps an unfortunate necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. These leaders want us to suppress our instinct to cry out in protest, opting instead to assume the best in Israel’s leaders and the worst in those who critique them. They want us to accept the Israeli government’s actions carte blanche, just as the Israelites in the above mid’rash accepted the Torah without knowing what it contained.
I’d like to pose an alternative interpretation of Na’aseh V’nishma. My emphasis is on a solitary syllable that we often overlook in Jewish text – the “v.” In Hebrew, it means “and.” When we emphasize the “and,” we find that the message of Na’aseh V’nishma – we will do and we will understand – is not that we must do or accept commandments before we understand what they are. The take-away cannot be that following God’s orders is of the utmost importance and understanding them is irrelevant. Through our emphasis on “and,” we learn that doing what we are told, on its own, is insufficient. We must do and we must also understand.
Repeatedly, in the Torah and other Jewish holy texts, we find that human beings directly confront divine authority. Abraham famously argues with God regarding Sodom and Gomorra, and Moses follows suit during the episode of the Golden Calf. Even the name given to the Jewish people, Yisrael/Israel – refers to a literal wrestling match between Jacob and a divine being! It would be a bit nonsensical, then, for Na’aseh V’nishma to override all of that precedent, teaching us that blind acceptance of God’s commandments is of the utmost importance, while subjecting them to scrutiny is largely irrelevant.
If our own ancestors are permitted to protest divine commandments, all the more so must it be permissible for us to protest mere human beings. The Israeli government is made up of flesh-and-blood humans, fallible and prone to mistakes. Our responsibility is not merely to accept their actions, but to understand them thoroughly. When our quest for understanding leads us to believe that their decisions are profoundly unjust, it is our responsibility to say so.
Na’aseh V’nishma has the potential to guide us as we work to achieve peace now, the beautiful title of this organization. Only through a commitment to both doing and understanding will we reach an enduring solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
As we take our next steps forward, towards ending the occupation, let’s also keep in mind the location of this crucial phrase in the Torah. The phrase is found in Exodus. Chapter 24, verse 7. Working to create a better world – one of right action and mutual understanding – is a 24/7 kind of effort. Let’s each do our part.
Lex Rofes is a first-year rabbinical student through ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and works as the Strategic Initiatives Coordinator for the Institute for the Next Jewish Future. A proud native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he graduated from Brown University in 2013 and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.