Parashat Yitro : The process of Revelation, the giving and the accepting.

Famously in bible the Jews are given Torah at Sinai, and while the exact experience of what happens and in what order is hard to follow in the text, three times the words of God are put before the Jewish people and three times they respond to Moses:  

The first report comes in Exodus 19:7-8 where we are told “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Eternal had commanded them. And all the people answered together and said “all that the Eternal has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people to God.” 

It is not clear if “all the people” described here are really all the people, or their representatives, but the response is clear – “everything God has said, we will do: na’asseh”.

But later, after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the beginning of their explication in the chapters that follow, we are told this:  “And to Moses God said Come up to the Eternal, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel;  and worship at a distance. And Moses alone shall come near to God, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people go up with him. And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Eternal, and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice and said “All the words which the Eternal has spoken, we will do : na’asseh” (Exodus 24:1-4)

And a few verses later we are told “And [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear: na’asseh venishma”

This repetition of the transmission of the covenant described in different ways leads us to some interesting places. The phrase “na’asseh venishma” is curious for a number of reasons, not least the meaning of the word nishma here, and of course the word order.  The root shema (shin mem ayin) primarily means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, and goes on to have a meaning of to understand, even to consent to, to agree, to obey…. 

Usually translated as “we will do it and we will understand”, the word order echoes a modern understanding of learning – ie that learning or understanding emerges from action, rather than the other way around.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”. From this strange word order comes the Jewish tradition of action first – that we don’t have to spend time studying or learning before doing the mitzvot, we don’t have to wait to act until we have a fully researched position, but our actions lead to our understanding of the world, and deepen our thinking.  This is much the same way that prayer works. By the act and process of regular prayer, of reciting or meditating upon ancient words, we find ourselves on occasion in the presence of God. In my experience it rarely happens the other way about, that, finding ourselves aware of the Divine, we utter our prayer. The routine of prayer, the regularity and even the almost mantra like poetry of the words and the rote action lead us to another level of awareness sometimes. It acts upon us and seeps into us and changes us.

Na’asseh venishma –it is usually understood to mean that we act before we might have fully worked out all the consequences. It is traditionally understood to mean that we are a religion of doing rather more than one of believing. That our understanding of, and relationship with, God emerges from our right behaviour in the world. I must admit this makes sense to me, resonates with my own experience of mitzvot and of prayer.  

But there is something else. Three times the revelation is presented before the people it seems, and twice only the response “na’asseh” is given. The first time, before the Ten Commandments are spoken, the revelation seems to be given specifically via the elders. It is accepted as a commitment – na’asseh, we will do it.

The second time the revelation is presented is after the Ten Commandments are spoken, but again we are reminded of the leadership’s attendance, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders are nearby, even though only Moses is in the presence of God.  Again the response is na’aseh, we will do it.

But the third time it is different –this time the relationship between God and people is not mediated through a leadership, but Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to all the people, and then they reply with this curious phrase “na’asseh venishma”. What is being added to the agreement to act? Is it truly knowledge and understanding? Is it compliance and obedience? Or is it the openness to committing at a deeper level? Not the intellectual expertise that grows from repeated doing, but the relationship that is created from an ongoing commitment to simply be there, attentive, part of the other person’s world.  Once the people are engaged directly, it seems to me that they not only agree to the Covenant being presented to them, they additionally agree to the relationship that will emerge from this Covenant being enacted, that the Covenant in effect will become part of them.

We live in a world where we pride ourselves on being rational, thought-through, evidence based. We don’t act without forethought, without awareness of consequences. We would rather overthink than reach out impulsively. We are cautious, careful, watchful. And yet at Sinai we see something different – the willingness to take on trust, the preparedness to take the next step without knowing what it might entail, the openness to whatever will grow and emerge that is out of our ability to control. It is the paradigm for any loving relationship, the model for any creative endeavour. It bespeaks hope and it bespeaks a kind of confidence that whatever comes our way we will be able to negotiate through it. That to me is the miracle of Sinai. Not the shaking mountain or the smoke and shofar, but the way that God and Moses learn to stop using a hierarchy and engage directly with the people, and the way the people respond by throwing their lot in with God and Moses. Clearly both sides take a risk and step into the unknown.

It is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty and here there is no certainty. There is only the openness that what will be will be a journey worth embarking upon. A journey and an openness to possibility that marks us even now – for as the Midrash tells us, we all stand at Sinai.