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Introduction– Unconditional Love Means Unconditional Giving 

As a father, I’m in a constant state of doing and listening. If my kids need something, I will do it, whatever it is, whether I know how to do it yet or not, and I will listen to their needs so that I can provide in a way that is best for them. When someone asks you for something, and you love them unconditionally (ahava she’eina teluya bedavar / a love that does not hang/depend on things), even if you don’t have the time, the answer is, “yes, I don’t have the time, but I’ll make the time.” And if it’s something you might not even know how to do, it’s, “I don’t know if I know how to do it, but yes, I will get it done.” Because doing is an expression and a way to demonstrate love and show to yourself and to them that you’d do anything for them. 

This is the sort of love we all aspire to have and to give. Loving is giving– it’s literally the root of the Hebrew word – אהבה/Ahava (ah-ha-va)– ‘hav’ which means ‘to give’. Love is synonymous with giving. The basis of Jewish faith is action, because action is giving of oneself, and it is through the mitzvot (commandments) and other Jewish rituals that attachment, clarity, unification and love manifest themselves.

This is the love we look for in partners and often feel lacking without one. But we often forget that all of reality is an opportunity for a nurturing relationship with Hashem, the source of everything. Ahava has the same gematria (numerical value)– 13– as the word Echad (the Hebrew word for ‘one’). And so to reach oneness and love, we have to be in tune (mind, body, soul, heart) with the Source, our Creator, and when we share our love, connecting it to its source, that is 13 + 13, which is 26, the numerical value of Hashem’s four-letter name (the Tetragrammaton), the ultimate Divine Infinite Light. 

Naaseh v’Nishma 24/7

כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע
Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will listen (obey).1

As I read the verse na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do and we will hear”) in this week’s parashah, I realized it is contained in Exodus 24:7. And it is with those words

that we can remind ourselves of our escape from the grips of enslavement and focus on the redemption, instead of just once a year on Passover. We can live this mindset of Exodus and Redemption, literally 24/7. It is in this space of na’aseh v’nishma that we are in unconditional obedience and enthusiasm to fulfill Hashem’s mitzvot, regardless of if we understand them rationally.

As it’s written in the Talmud, Hashem offered the Torah to B’nei Yisrael and instead of asking, “What is written there?” they replied, “Na’aseh v’nishma.” It may seem odd to agree to something before fully understanding it, and while we must always understand and learn as much as possible, intellectual knowledge of the Divine can’t be a precondition of living within the guidelines set forth by Hashem, which this Parashah covers. It is the “we will do” of observing the mitzvot that brings us to an appreciation of them and the unification with the Divine that they facilitate. 

It seems that we are all in various states of Divine disconnect. Some might even say we are spiritually sick. We attempt to heal, but it is a long journey and often feels impossible. When we attempt to heal our physical selves, it is in much the same way of doing and then hearing/seeing/understanding– when a doctor prescribes the medication we need to heal ourselves, we take it in good faith; we don’t first go to medical school, researching every element of it and only take the medication afterward. If that were the case, we would remain sick, no doubt getting worse and worse. We take it in faith, because it benefits our physical selves and isn’t contingent on our knowledge of its inner workings. In fact by taking it we can start to see clearer, feel better, and get a better understanding of how the medicine helped.2 It is the same with our spiritual selves– the more we are in the space of na’aseh v’nishma with the mitzvot, the more elevated our spirit, and by virtue of that, our physical selves, will be. 

Crowns of Commitment

On a more mystical level, we learn that as a reward for B’nei Yisrael’s immediate response of na’aseh v’nishma and display of absolute emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust), Hashem sent 600,000 angels each carrying two crowns.3 As Rashi explains, these crowns were from the light of the Divine Presence, one for the “we will do” and the other for the “we will hear,” and these crowns were placed on the head of each member of B’nei Yisrael. As Chazal (Our Sages) teach: “God betrothed the Jews with the two crowns of na’aseh v’nishma.” 

We learn that later, after the sin of the Golden Calf, 1,200,000 avenging angels descended and removed the crowns and gave them to Moshe. As it’s written, “And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments from Mount Choreb onward.”4 When they made the Golden Calf, they lost the na’aseh. Moshe said to them, ‘You lost the na’aseh, be certain that you guard the nishma.” Chazal teach that Hashem will return these crowns to B’nei Yisrael at the time of the final redemption as it is written, “Those that God will redeem… an everlasting joy on their heads.”5 The crowns were given because of na’aseh v’nishma, and Everlasting joy refers to the crowns being returned in the future and forever. And so from this Rebbe Nachman infers that joy itself corresponds to na’aseh v’nishma, that “we will do” and “we will listen” are synonymous with joy, corresponding to the pasuk, “an everlasting joy on their heads.” 

Nishma : Tefillah

Breaking down the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, “we will do” and “we will listen” is key to understanding how to tap into the Light of Infinite. “We will do” corresponds to the revealed– the mitzvot and the levels that each can perform, commensurate with the level and state the person is on and in at the time. Whereas, “We will hear” corresponds to the hidden– the concepts and elements that are elevated and hidden from us. It would be impossible to serve Hashem with only the “we will hear.” And so these two parts correspond to the Torah and tefillah (prayer) respectively. “We will do” is synonymous with Torah, the revealed elements that we know how to fulfill. “We will hear” corresponds to tefillah, as we learn in the Zohar, “hearing is dependent upon the heart,”6 as it’s written, “Give Your servant a hearing heart.”7  Nishma is hearing – liSHMo’A (לשמע), as in niSHMA (נשמע) – depends upon the heart. King Solomon prayed for a heart that would judge properly when he prayed, “Give to the one that wants to serve You a heart that will attain the exalted level of nishma.”

The Talmud teaches that the service of the heart is tefillah,8 which corresponds to the practice of bitul (negating of the self) and d’veykut (cleaving to the Infinite One). The hiddenness of this aspect is because we can’t grasp the concept of the Infinite One, and so there is no intellectual action or practice that can reveal the hidden, only negation of self towards the Light of the Infinite, which unifies each of us to the Light. 

And so, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov connects nishma to a deep understanding, to the heart, and the heart to tefillah. Through the service of the heart and tefillah we are able to experience the highest exalted levels of spiritual perception. And so beyond the level of na’aseh a person has reached, there are infinite levels of nishma that are far beyond one’s ability to understand. In Nechemiah it’s written, “For the delight in God is your boldness.”9  The Rebbe teaches that “holy boldness” is achieved through joy, meaning through the concept of “na’aseh v’nishma”.

The Rebbe goes on to explain that na’aseh v’nishma is not a static commitment to fulfill what we already know, but an ongoing commitment to pursue knowledge and observance of the Torah. And this is the reason for the order of we will do and we will hear, otherwise we would have said “we will hear” first, so that we could hear instructions, and then “we will do” so that we could carry them out, but it is ordered exactly as it should be to be a dynamic relationship that we have with the Torah and Hashem. So when we say “we will do” that refers to what we already know. The “we will hear” is our openness and our eagerness to that which we will be introduced to, but don’t yet know how to do. And we will continuously be introduced to new levels, new concepts, and new spiritual heights through tefillah, which is a form of d’veykut.

We Will Do… In this World

Before the famous pasuk in Chapter 24, verse 7, we read verse 3: “All the words that Hashem has spoken, we will do.”10 The distinction between their two responses reflects a progression in their thinking. Originally they responded with only “we will do,” reflecting their desire to immediately ascend to Olam Haba (the Next World). This parallels the verse in Pirkei Avot, “Better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World.”11 However, the Chatam Sofer teaches, after building the twelve pillars and offering sacrifices on the altar, B’nei Yisrael were inspired to the challenge of living an ideal life in this world and meriting the world to come from it. And we see in Pirkei Avot that there is another verse that parallels this that reads, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in This World than all of the World to Come.”12 So, by aspiring toward this new goal, they accepted not only na’aseh – that they would perform mitzvot as an end in itself, but rather na’aseh in order to nishma, meaning they would perform the mitzvot in order to understand His Will. In order to reach these goals of constant spiritual growth toward a unification with the Divine Presence, a long (fulfilling) life is required. The “we will do” corresponds to the World to Come, while “We will do and we will hear” or as we read around Matan Torah recorded in Devarim, “We shall hear and we shall do,”13 we are aspiring to an even loftier desire to consecrate this world.14

A few pasukim later we read that Hashem says to Moshe, Come up to the mountain and be there (וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם).15  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach points out that most of the time we are not where we are, we are somewhere else. Even with Moshe Rebbainu, even on his level, being invited to come to the mountain for forty days, even in that instance Hashem feels the need to say, “Ve’h’yeh sham,” to make sure he is spiritually present while being physically present. The lesson is that when we are in a space of knowing how much we don’t know, when we are in a state of bitul (self-nullification), not in a space of thinking we know this and we know that, but that we don’t really know anything, in the space of nishma, that is the space of being present, of being deeper in the space spiritually, just as much as physically. And that is where growth happens. 

The Ishbitzer Rebbe asks what the purest thing in the world is and answers his own question saying, “life itself!” There is nothing holier, purer, deeper that flows down from Hashem than life itself. The question that each of us must answer is how much life do we receive and what do we do with it. And so when Hashem is saying to Moshe to be truly there, He is saying, “you have to go through life and be present for life to go through you, and so to be truly there is to be truly alive, to be fully present, to be in the space of nishma.” 

Carlebach reminds us that we are not really living yet, “we are only half alive. How could it be that one minute we are good, one minute we are bad? One minute we are holy, one minute we are unholy? One minute we love, one minute we hate?” He explains that we never have a place of our own or stand firmly in place, we jump around from one place to another, not gaining anything from the experience. Hashem is telling Moshe (and us), we have to reach for the level on which life itself can flow purely into us.16 

Conclusion– Meeting Hashem in Mitzvot 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that the difference between an act which is reasonable and one that is a mitzvah is that mitzvah means connection, the link between us and Hashem. When we read of Hashem’s statues, the Torah writes, “He shall live by them.” And so if we bring the whole of each of our lives – action, emotion, reason and inwardness – into the performance of a mitzvah, because it was given at Sinai, we create Sinai, the meeting of each of us and Hashem.17

Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that whenever a person performs a mitzvah with joy, it’s as if he is saying na’aseh v’nishma, because when one is happy to do a mitzvah, the person is in a state of being willing to hear more.18 He explains that “doing” refers to what a person is able to do, while “hearing” refers to what a person aspires to do.19 

We must do what we aspire to, as there is no time like the present to pursue spirituality and connection. Each of us is bestowed with free-will, and it’s a powerful freedom, but one that comes with great responsibility. We all have a purpose, and our time in this world is what we have to live up to that purpose. As we see, Hashem can help us elevate and reach the highest spiritual heights when we cling to him through mitzvot and tefillah. However, by virtue of free-will, if we choose the opposite, to indulge the physical “heights” or even evil and destruction, Hashem’s infinite mercy won’t hold us back from doing so. And so our time in this world is just long enough to fulfill our purpose; every moment in this life is a moment we won’t get back and so it should not be wasted. If we aren’t truly living, using our physical selves to elevate our spiritual selves to inspire Divine Presence to ourselves and those around us, we are not truly living. The mitzvot are the prescription, the positive action is the medicine, and if we don’t use it, we can’t transcend. 

So, when we read and dive deep into what we mean when we say, “we will do and we will hear,” we see that both are needed to be fully connected. We can be present, we can do, but the second our ego gets in and we are no longer tapped into the “we will hear,” we go from the potential of infinity to being constricted into finitude. 

It’s only in the nishma (“we will hear”), the space of being present, the space of tefillah, the space of bitul, the space of dveykut to Hashem that we become infinite, that we are fully connected to the Infinite One. 

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Erez Safar

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Notes & Sources

  1. Exodus 24:7
  2. Doing or Understanding – Which Comes First? by Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov
  3. Talmud Avodah Zarah 2b
  4. Exodus 33:6
  5. Isaiah 51:11
  6. Tikkuney Zohar 58
  7. 1 Kings 3:9
  8. Talmud Taanit 2a
  9. Nechemiah 8:10
  10. Exodus 24:3
  11. Pirkei Avot 4:17
  12. Ibid
  13. Deuteronomy 5:24
  14. Chatam Sofer 114 ד״ה כל
  15. Exodus 24:12
  16. The Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Exodus, p. 342-345
  17. Likkutei Sichot, Vol III, pp. 895-901
  18. Likutei Halachot V, p. 492
  19. Ibid III, p. 55a