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OF MIGHT AND MEN

by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

This Shabbat as we assemble in synagogue, we will read and relive the greatest moment in Jewish history - the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

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This Shabbat as we assemble in synagogue, we will read and relive the greatest moment in Jewish history - the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The imagery of Hashem's fire descending upon the mountain, accompanied by the blast of the shofar, sends chills up and down our spines, evoking a sense of déjà vu and an innate familiarity with the experience. At this very moment we became the people of Hashem, His loyal constituents whose destiny it is to perfect and elevate the world. This relationship, of course, was not one-sided. The Torah was not rammed down our throats. Rather, we joyously accepted this most wonderful gift with the famous formula, "Na'aseh v'nishma - we will do and [then] we will listen," which is the daily mantra of the ministering angels.

What exactly does this response mean, that "we will do and then we will listen"? How can one do before one has listened to what it is that one must do? Some commentators explain this to mean that we will perform the mitzvot and then we will hear the explanations for the mitzvot. This is untenable since there are many mitzvot, called chukim, in which we profess to have no understanding. Additionally, why should it be so great or prestigious to declare that ultimately we expect a reason for what we are doing? Would it not be more praiseworthy to say, "Hashem, we trust You implicitly and don't need any reasons," as the Jews in fact do proclaim twice ("All that Hashem commands we will do" - Exodus 19:8 and 24:3) before even uttering Na'aseh v'nishma (ibid. 24:7)?

The key to understanding this response comes from the statement of our sages that this formula is proclaimed daily by the angels on high. What is an angel? Our tradition tells us that an angel is nothing more than a manifestation of the word of Hashem as it comes into this world to perform a specific function. When Hashem "wishes" to make something happen, His will is translated into the concept of an angel. A primary distinction between a person and an angel is that a person, by virtue of his composition of body and soul, has free choice to act and decide what his values will be. An angel, on the other hand, knows of nothing other than its particular mission. An angel cannot deviate from its job to the slightest degree; this is a philosophical impossibility. In absence of a physical form, there is no question to the angel what it is to do, as there are no divergent forces competing for control of his conscious. It may therefore be said that an angel has total clarity of who he is and why he was created.

Hashem did not create Man to be a shallow creature serving his Creator with a sense of emptiness and humdrum. He wanted us to enjoy life and find meaning in our existence. The Targum Onkelos, an authoritative Aramaic translation on the Torah, renders the word "v'nishma" as "v'nikabel - we will accept." The secret to receiving the Torah was that we understood that through na'aseh and the performance of mitzvot, we would come to v'nishma and the acceptance of this as our true mission and destiny in this world. When we uttered these words, we lifted ourselves to the level of angels. We understood with absolute clarity that Torah is our very lifeblood and raison de`etre.

It comes as no surprise that our sages tell us that at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people succeeded in freeing themselves from the shackles of death, transforming themselves into immortal beings. Death is a phenomenon of the body, of the material part of Man. When Man achieves this level of recognition of his purpose, when he recognizes that he is nothing but a manifestation of the will of his Creator, he purifies himself and becomes an angel. We make our lives too complicated. If we could see ourselves with the clarity of our great ancestors, with the utmost simplicity of purpose, we would find so much peace and tranquillity for our agitated souls.

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Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator in Miami Beach.

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