Why does the Torah choose to follow the revelation on Mount Sinai that we re-experienced in last week’s Torah portion with the litany of statutes and regulations in this week’s reading Parashat Mishpatim?
Being a Jewish question, it is no surprise that there is a myriad of answers, but I would like to suggest two that are both derived from the same verse. In the 24th chapter of Exodus, after a deluge of divine decrees, Moses assembles the Israelites, repeats God’s commandments to them and the Israelites respond, Na’aseh v’Nishma. I’ve written these words in the Hebrew because the translation is so difficult.
The word "na’aseh" is relatively straightforward. It means “We will do.” The word “nishma”is more challenging. The most straight forward translation is “We will listen” or “We will hear.” But this verb in Hebrew, lishmoah, has a number of meanings. It can certainly mean to listen or to hear. It can also mean to pay attention, to understand, or in this case, it is usually translated as “We will obey.”
One beautiful and provocative answer to the question about why our scriptures transition so quickly from the drama and spectacle of Mount Sinai to the ancient precursor of our civil code is that last week’s reading provided us with an aspirational vision. This week’s text provides us with the instructions about how to get there. The Talmud cites the Prophet Jeremiah and teaches us that the revelation we read about last week has not ended and that each day God calls out from Sinai anew. This week teaches us how to structure our lives so that we will be able to hear that call.
But, as the business writer Simon Sinek teaches, explanations of how things work will only get us so far. The powerful inquiry is about why. Here too, the answer can be found in the nuance of the verb “to hear.” When we read na’aseh v’nishma, we are transported to the other important examples of hearing in the Torah. We remember when God heard the cries of the Israelites as they suffered under the oppression of the Egyptians, when God heard the terror of the Israelites as they found themselves caught between the Egyptian army and the Yam Suf, the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds, and then again in this week’s reading when God tells us that if we oppress the widows and orphans among us, God will hear their cry and God’s anger will be turned toward us.
This verse not only teaches us how to experience God’s presence, it teaches us that the reason God gave us the commandments was to train us to listen to the world around us with empathy, hearing the needs of those around us the same way that God hears the cries of those who are in distress, no matter who they may be. When scholars translate this reading of the verb lishmoah as “to obey,” they teach us that when we listen with this kind of divine empathy, we have no choice other than to answer those calls.