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Torah Commentary
Mishpatim (January 25, 2014)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

NA-A-SEH V-NISH-MAH. Two deceptively simple words, six brief syllables floating easily off the tongue.

Na-a-sheh, with the root of ayin, shin and heh, refers to a physical action, doing an activity. A version of this root (o-seh) is recited during the Kaddish prayer and also at the conclusion of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) when we recite Oseh Shalom.

V-nish-mah literally means “and we will hear.” This root — shin, mem, ayin — also is found in the familiar Sh’ma prayer.

Mishpatim contains a comprehensive, intricate system of legal rules, amplifying the “Executive Summary” (Decalogue) we just read in Yitro. Last week, in Exodus 19:8, we heard the Israelites’ reaction to Moses upon his return from his encounter with God: “All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!’” Their affirmation is expressed with the word na-ah-seh. Also last week, in Exodus 20:16, they implored: “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey.” Here, the text records their reply with nish-mah rather than na-a-seh.

It can be argued that the Israelites’ initial acceptance of the covenant reflects a naïve blind faith. These are the same Israelites who had participated personally in the dramatic redemption from Egyptian enslavement. Gratitude may have been a sufficiently powerful emotion to evoke unwavering loyalty and compliance. Nonetheless, it was a rational, informed decision based upon direct past experience.

In this week’s parashah, the people twice more affirm their acceptance of the covenant. First, in Exodus 24:3: “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!’” This marks the third time they were given a chance to reconsider and the third time they collectively affirm the covenant with the single word na-ah-seh. Just a few verses later, in Exodus 24:7 we read: “Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’”

Why do they now affirm the covenant with two words: na-ah-seh v-nish-mah? Both the Plaut and Etz Hayim translations offer “faithfully do” as the meaning of na-ah-seh v-nish-mah. However, this does not reflect the literal sense of these words that have intrigued commentators for centuries.

For Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, na-ah-seh v-nish-mah represents the revealed and the hidden dimensions of reality. Na-ah-seh refers to those commandments that one can fulfill simply by doing. Nish-mah suggests the hidden, spiritual aspects that cannot be grasped. It expresses the transformation that occurs by performing the commandment. The act of “doing” brings one to the next level. A new na-ah-seh (fulfillment) springs from the previous nish-mah (hiddenness). It goes on and on, in perpetuity. The more we do, the more we discover and elevate our relationship with God.

Through Emanu-El, there is no shortage of ways to move beyond the mode of na-ah-seh into nish-mah. Through our Tikkun Olam Committee, Emanu-El facilitates volunteering in an exciting array of hands-on projects. Our Philanthropic Fund continues Emanu-El’s proud legacy of supporting organizations that do extraordinary work to better lives in our city, our country and our world. A simple glance at our monthly Bulletin or weekly e-blast, and our website, provides the chance for exposure to Jewish culture, engagement in Jewish study and, of course, worship. The more we do, the more we can hear.

We invite you to sharpen your hearing through the many opportunities Emanu-El offers.

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