Saturday, February 10, 2018

"We shall do and We shall learn to understand:" Did the Jews make the right decision to accept the Torah?

Torah Portion Mishpatim: Exodus 21.1-24:16

What really happened when God revealed the Torah to Israel? One viewpoint was, according to the sages of old, that God shared the Torah with other nations first before giving it to the Israelites.

First God went to the sons of Esau and asked them: “Are you willing to accept the Torah?
They asked God, “What is written in it?”
God replied, “Thou shalt not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
But the sons of Esau replied, “God, it was the nature of our ancestor to be a murderer, as it is written, “By your sword you shall live,” (Genesis 27:40) “God, we cannot accept the Torah.”

God then went to the Ammonites and the Moabites and asked them,”Are you willing to accept the Torah?
They said to the Eternal One, “What is written it?”
God replied, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:13)
They replied, “God it is in our nature that we are offspring of an immoral  sexual union, as it is said, “Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child from their father” (Gen. 19:36). “We cannot accept the Torah.”

God then went to the Ishmaelites and said to them, “Are you willing to accept the Torah?”
They said to the Eternal One, “What is written in it?
God replied, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:13).
But the Ishmaelites said, “Surely it was the very nature of our ancestor to be a robber, as it is said, “He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). 
“We cannot accept the Torah.”
And thus did God go from people to people, offering them the Torah. But no people was willing to accept it.
At last God came to the Israelites.  Without asking God what was in the Torah, the Israelites immediately responded, “All that the Eternal One has spoken we will do and we will learn to understand” (Ex. 24:7). (Siphrei to Deuteronomy -Midrash)

It is that last verse, “All that the Eternal One has spoken we will do and we will learn to understand,” which comes right out of this week’s Torah portion called Mishpatim. It continues the revelation at Sinai which began in last week’s Torah Portion when we read the Ten Commandments.  The complete revelation of Torah deals with all kinds of civil and criminal laws which would eventually guide the Jewish people into becoming a holy people to God. What Jews forget is that we too often think of the revelation at Sinai as the Ten Commandments instead of understanding that God gave us not ten but many laws which would one day equal 613 mitzvoth or commandments.

Is it not strange to read a story of Jews blindly accepting the invitation and the commitment to accept God’s law? Does that sound like a Jewish way of thinking, that is, Jews embracing something so monumental and  they have no idea what it is about?

Did our ancestors commit an error on our behalf? Maybe they should have asked God just like the rest of the nations what was in the Torah first before they agreed?
There is a lesson in this midrash for us today about religious commitment. Yes the story put the Jewish people above the rest of the nations in a moral and spiritual context. That aspect is in and of itself a worthy issue to discuss for people who have problems with the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. But that is not where I am going with this verse and my commentary about this story tonight.

Instead, let’s remember that the Torah portion shows Moses offering sacrifices to celebrate the Covenant which Israel agreed to with God. It was at that moment when, according to the Torah, Moses “took the book of the Covenant and read it to the People and their response was to accept it all.”
 Another translation of the same verse was;  “we will do and we will understand.” Yet, I liked the first translation that I read to you earlier which says: “we will do and we will learn to understand.” Our journey as Jews is to learn and to spend our lives trying to understand not just what the Torah says but what it means.
Some skeptics may be thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe we should have asked harder questions first for if we knew what we would one day endure over the millennium for being Jewish and for holding to our commitment to follow the mitzvoth we might not have made that choice.’

But I think that we also learn that not only is Judaism an intellectual religion it is also one that speaks to the heart and intuition as well. How else can one explain how an entire people would embrace the concept of performing commandments and not know what they were? 
It is no different from asking ourselves why didn’t we just assimilate and give in to the pressures wherever we lived to relinquish our identity and convert to another religious tradition? Is that not a real mystery about who we are and why we have come this far in world history?

We are living in times today where it appears that the emphasis in America is assimilation away from religion. Not only that but we live in times when individualism is more important than community. This trend is another challenge to millennials of all religious faith traditions and the future generations. Judaism ascribes so much emphasis to the spirituality of the community and the people. God teaches individuals to be kadosh by creating holy communities. How can Judaism thrive, despite all the freedoms of religion we have today, when so much of American society is about me and not we?

The translation from chapter 24:7 which I prefer is ‘we will do and we will understand.” Our sages tried to teach succeeding generations including us that Judaism challenges us as individuals  to understand and to ask questions and be argumentative for the purpose of expanding and deepening our horizons no matter what age we are in life. This is why have two adult groups, for example, studying for their B’nai Mitzvah in May. This is why we are known for our scholarship and for our love affair with the texts. Again we are not intrinsically superior in a moral or spiritual perspective than other religions or peoples, but what makes us unique is that we ask the questions of God and of ourselves to further our learning and our wisdom in life.

The community and the individual in Judaism belong intertwined as one and we should not loose the opportunity from this week’s portion and the verse “We shall do and we shall learn to understand,” to grasp that the life of religion is requires us to be engaged not only in the culture of Judaism but in the spiritual steps waiting for us, no matter the age, to walk down the pathway to greater knowledge and wisdom. So did one story about where God asked all the other nations to accept the Torah and they rejected it and we were the only ones who accepted demonstrate that the rabbis’ believed that God had an intuition about us as much we did about God? I believe that the answer was and continues to be yes. The question is when will we realize that intuition for us today?
Shabbat Shalom