Do First, Understand Later

The Jews accepted the Torah with the statement naaseh v'nishma--we will do and we will hear.

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Accepting Torah Before Sinai

The chronology of the revelation at Sinai is virtually impossible to unravel simply through a reading of the relevant biblical passages. Moses seemingly travels up and down the mountain continuously and presents the Torah to the Jewish people on several occasions. This confusing series of events leads numerous biblical commentators to invoke the rabbinic principle that "there is no chronology in the Torah"--meaning we cannot assume that events occurred in the order in which the Torah describes them.

This principle also allows the rabbis to insist that the Jewish people recited the words "na'aseh v'nishma" even before the revelation at Sinai. This unconditional acceptance of Torah, according to the rabbis, indicates the depth of the Jewish people's commitment to God and their submission to divine law.

In placing the declaration "na'aseh v'nishma" before the revelation, the rabbis solve a problem created by their own biblical interpretation. According to the Bible, at the moment of revelation, "[the people] stood underneath the mountain." According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, "If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave" (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion. The Rabbis eliminate this possibility by insisting that the people said "na'aseh v'nishma" before the revelation. Further emphasizing the voluntary nature of the Jewish submission to God and Torah, the Rabbis teach that the Jews accepted the Torah again at the time of the Purim.

Worthy of Torah

For the rabbis, the words na'aseh v'nishma also indicate the worthiness of the Jewish people for divine revelation. Several midrashim (interpretive stories) depict the angels, who often exhibit a sort of sibling rivalry toward the Jewish people, trying to persuade God that human beings, who are inherently imperfect, do not deserve to receive the Torah. This angelic argument finds support in the Torah's own portrayal of the Jews as a whining and ungrateful people who construct a golden calf almost immediately after encountering God at Mount Sinai.

Nevertheless, the Talmud suggests that the people redeem themselves with the declaration "na'aseh v'nishma," which demonstrates an understanding of certain divine secrets:

"At the moment when the Jewish people said first 'We will do' and then 'We will understand,' a heavenly voice went out and said to them, Who revealed to my children this secret, employed by the angels, as it is written, 'Praise God, O God's angels, mighty in strength, who do God's will and understand God's word '"(Tractate Shabbat 88a).

Just as the angels know first to obey and then to understand God's word, so too the Jewish people have somehow intuited this divine secret and therefore have proven themselves as meriting the Torah, previously the exclusive property of the divine realm. Accordingly, in the Talmud, the angels respond to the people's words by crowning each member of the Jewish people with two divine crowns, one for "na'aseh" and one for "nishma."

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.