Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House
Two unforgettable words declared by the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai, na’aseh ve-nishma, “we shall do and we shall listen,” have reverberated throughout the generations. The meaning of these two words and the significance of their counterintuitive order have been subject to a wealth of interpretations.
Rashbam, one of the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot and grandson of Rashi, strove to interpret the Torah according to the peshat (literal-contextual meaning). Consistent with this approach, he explained that na’aseh refers to the commandments already given, such as circumcision and Shabbat, and nishma refers to the ones that would be given during the revelation at Sinai. With this declaration, the Jewish people were reaffirming their commitment to the laws which they had already been keeping, and accepting the new ones now being given at Sinai.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno conceived of the two terms as expressing a certain mindset or attitude. The Jewish people would observe the commandments (na’aseh) in order to obey (nishma) the word of God. In other words, the Jews were saying that their performance of mitzvot was not contingent on receiving a reward or on any other ulterior motive. Their motivation was pure, acting solely for the sake of obeying God.
One of Chassidut’s most celebrated thinkers, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, suggested a deeper understanding of these words:
For example, the Torah’s refrain “God spoke to Moshe, saying” ( ויַדְַברֵּ ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר ) makes no demands on us. It is a part of the Torah that we can only “hear” (nishma) but not “perform” (na’aseh). Nevertheless, it has profound meaning. Even among the mitzvot which we think we grasp, there exist layers of meaning beyond our reach. We hear but we do not comprehend. On other planes of existence, these things are understood, but others are still not. The duality of na’aseh and nishma runs throughout all reality.
This notion of inscrutability has been expressed by other Torah luminaries as well. It is said in the name of Rav Chaim Brisker that the reasons we find for the commandments are merely subjective impressions, even the rationale that we may not murder other human beings because it will destroy civilization. Since God could have made the world otherwise, or even in such a way that murder would maintain the fabric of society, the objective reasons behind the mitzvot belong to an inaccessible, supernal realm.
A memorable anecdote involving the Kotzker Rebbe exemplifies this, too. A student once approached the Kotzker and related that he was troubled because he could not understand the ways of God. The rebbe responded with the kind of sharp retort for which he is famous, “A God I could understand, I would not be able to believe in.”
This theological approach, echoed by others but elaborated more fully by Rebbe Nachman, should be appreciated for the way it informs daily Jewish living. The Torah study that we do is an exemplary form of avodat Hashem, divine service, because it does not exhaust itself with learning for the sake of observing. Every word contains worlds of meaning, and through its study we draw closer to the Creator of this immense complexity.
A rabbi is traditionally the most learned in Torah. The general Hebrew term for “rabbi” is rav ( רַב ), which can be understood as one who has an abundance ( הרְַבהֵּ ) of Torah knowledge. The Chassidim designated a different term for their spiritual masters, rebbe ( רַביִּ ), which some claim is a combination of the term for abundance plus the letter yod, which is part of God’s divine name. Therefore, the rebbe is someone who has mastered a great deal of Torah, and whose learning has brought him palpably closer to God. Such is the power of Torah study.
Furthermore, when we bear in mind that our intellect and actions operate on the surface of the Torah, the tip of the iceberg, we inculcate within ourselves a deeper respect for the Torah. If we were privy to what is encoded in every law, word, or crownlet of the Torah, we would never attempt to tamper with or deviate from any of God’s instructions.
We are all familiar with the custom of hagbahah, lifting the Torah scroll prior to or after its reading. The congregation affirms that “this is the Torah that Moshe placed before Israel, in Moshe’s hands from the mouth of God.” But how can we truthfully declare that this is the same Torah, if we cannot even make out the words as it is borne aloft? Perhaps it symbolizes that the Torah is lofty, beyond our ken, mystifying even. The Torah may not be in heaven, its deepest dimensions are certainly not of this earth.
Rebbe Nosson Sternhartz of Nemirov, the prized student, personal scribe, and expositor par excellence of Rebbe Nachman, developed his master’s conception of the revealed and hidden aspects of the Torah by way of a Midrash on Psalms 81:4:
On Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One tells Satan to bring witnesses, and he brings the Sun alone. The Holy One says, “By the mouth of two witnesses is a matter established” (Deuteronomy 19:15), so he goes to bring the Moon. But the Moon is concealed, and though he seeks her out, he cannot find her. Then, the Holy One rises from the throne of strict justice and sits on the throne of mercy.
Rebbe Nosson interpreted the Midrash as follows. Every Jew has two aspects, the visible and the invisible. The Sun shines brightly and represents the manifest and external aspects of Jewish observance; it corresponds to na’aseh and to the Torah. At times, we are negligent in our observance, so “the Sun” testifies to our failures. But this is only half the story. The Moon – sometimes barely visible, sometimes not visible at all – represents the innermost, hidden yearnings of the Jew to be close to God; it corresponds to nishma and to prayer. Satan cannot find “the Moon” to force her to testify. God looks straight into the innermost chambers of our heart and finds no guilt.
The Jewish people’s declamation at Sinai, na’aseh ve-nishma, is the credo of Judaism. So much is encompassed in the space of these two words about who we are and who we want to be. Let us live up to this eternal pledge.