Parashat Mishpatim

Friday, February 12, 2021/30 Shevat, 5781
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1–24:18

Dear Friends,

Judaism is often described as a religion that emphasizes deeds. This characterization originates from this week’s Torah portion. There are three separate biblical verses in which the Jewish people promise to take on the teachings of Torah. When Moses tells the people that God will make them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” if they accept the covenant, the people respond, “All that God has said we will do.” When Moses offers specific laws included in the 613 mitzvot (commandments), again the people say, “All that God has said, we will do.” (Exodus 24:3) As Moses continues uttering words of Torah, the Israelites say “na’aseh v’nishmah,” “We will do, and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) The Rabbis pay special attention to this final phrase. It seems quite remarkable that the entire Jewish people would enthusiastically agree to do the commandments before fully understanding them. Shouldn’t we study the commandments, and do them from a place of intentionality rather than doing them without a pause for reflection?

The Rabbis wrestle with this very question. “What is greater – study or action?” the Talmud asks. Rabbi Tarfon held that action is greater, while Rabbi Akiva was in favor of study. Finally, everyone answered saying that study is better, but only because it leads to action. (Kiddushin 40b:8)

Like us, the Rabbis appear uncomfortable with the idea of people doing mitzvot by rote. “In claiming that ‘understanding brings one to doing’ or ‘study… leads to action,’ the rabbis can prioritize action without negating the meaning of one’s actions, wrote Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah. “The insistence that ‘na’aseh’ precedes ‘nishma’ also allows for the creation of a coherent community unified by its practice, even while allowing for discussion about the details and significance of this practice.”

The Rabbis understand that action unites the Jewish people in practice, but they maintain their emphasis on study. According to 13th century text Sefer HaChinukh, they are missing the point. “A person is acted upon according to his actions; and his heart and all his thoughts always follow after the actions that he does – whether good or bad… For it is known and true that every person is acted upon according to his actions.”

While study is important, there are things we cannot learn through books alone. Sometimes our actions can be our best teacher. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes so far as to call Judaism a “leap of action,” explaining a Jew is asked to “do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” In other words, fake it until you make it.

The Torah urges us to constantly strive to be better. Want to become more generous? Get in the habit of acting generously. It is better to give away $100 one dollar at a time, because our actions have a lasting effect on our soul, and actually help change us for the better. Want to be more patient? Set aside fifteen minutes of the day to intentionally work on being patient until it becomes a part of your being.

There are times when our study inspires us to act as holy people. There are other times when our deeds can change us for the better. Naaseh v’nishmah. Let us do and let us understand. However we allow ourselves to be inspired, may we never stop growing, and working towards being the best versions of ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail