Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1- 24:18
Efrat, Israel - Unique among all the peoples of the world is the Jewish people - a nation and a religion at the same time. Biblically speaking, G-d entered into two separate covenants with the Israelites: the first was with Abraham, the first patriarch and founder of our family nation. And the second was with all of the Israelites presumably at Mount Sinai. The first covenant is the covenant of a nation: G-d promised Abraham both progeny as well as boundaries to the Land of Israel. The second was a covenant of a religion: G-d gave us a faith and commandments which would link us together even when we were bereft of a land and were scattered through all four corners of the world. The logical moment for the establishment of this covenant was at Sinai, when 600,000 Israelites heard the Divine Voice presenting the fundamental laws of fealty to G-d, observance of the Sabbath, and the morality which demanded that we not murder or steal or commit adultery. Is it not then strange that the covenant is not presented or ratified in last week's Torah portion of the revelation of the Decalogue but is rather to be found at the conclusion of this week's Torah portion after a whole series of civil laws and a description of the conquest of the Land of Israel "And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the nation declaring behold the blood of the covenant which G-d has established with you on the basis of all these words" (Exodus 24:8). This covenant doesn't even come after the civil laws of our Torah reading. It somehow waits until the description of the conquest of Israel. Why the long delay? Why not establish the covenant at the time when the Israelites were at the zenith of their religious experience, the Revelation at Sinai?
I believe that the religious covenant was waiting for a single magic word to be uttered by the Israelites before which the Almighty was not willing to establish an eternal agreement with them. That magic word is a verb which is very familiar to every Jew, Shma hear, listen, eternalize. In last week's torah portion of Yitro, G-d says to the Israelites, "You have seen what I have done to Egypt ..... but now if you will hear yes hear my voice and observe my covenant you will be for me a unique treasure among all nations...." (Exodus 19:4,5) The Jews have seen, Raah, but apparently they have not yet heard. Only if they will hear will G-d establish His covenant with them.
The Torah portion continues and testifies as to the Divine descent on Mount Sinai and lists the ten Divine words or commandments. Words are generally heard but apparently the Israelites have not yet heard them. Indeed the very verse following the commandments reads "and the entire nation saw the sounds and the torches and the sound of the ram's horn .... and the nation saw and trembled and stood from afar." (Exodus 20:15) They only see - they only see even the words and the sounds. Apparently G-d is disappointed "and the Lord said to Moses, so shall you say to the children of Israel: you have seen that from the heavens I have spoken to you. Do not make together with me gods of silver and gods of gold... " (Exodus 20:19,20) Since they only see and they have not yet heard, they must receive an even stronger message about not descending into idolatry. After all, suggests the Divine, if you do not hear you can even combine belief in G-d with belief in idols.
It is only after the laws catalogued in this week's portion of Mishpatim and G-d's promise to send his messenger before the Israelites to help them conquer the Promised Land that we finally find the magic word "And Moses took the Book of the Covenant and called it out into the ears of the nation and they said, 'everything which G-d says shall we do and shall we hear' (Nishma)' " (Exodus 24:7) then the Almighty is ready to have Moses sprinkle the blood over the nation and establish G-d's covenant with Israel.
What does this Hebrew verb Shma really mean? Why is it so important? We all know the clarion call of the Jewish faith: "Shma Yisrael HaShem Elohenu HaShem Ehad", usually translated Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is One. There is a fascinating difference of opinion within the Mishnah as to how to explain this verse. One sage insists it means that we must express each word of the Shma prayer out loud so that our ears hear what our mouths are uttering. This explanation would certainly suggest that the meaning of Shma is to hear audibly with your ears. A second Sage insists that the one who recites the Shma must recite it in a language that he understands. Apparently for him the verb Shma means to hear in the sense of to understand, to listen not merely audibly but also intellectually. We must listen with our minds in addition to hearing with our ears.
The third view insists that neither hearing with one's ears or listening with one's mind is sufficient; the words of this clarion call is a commandment that we accept the yolk of the heavenly kingship, that we commit ourselves body and soul to obeying the will of the Divine. I would submit that this position defines Shma as internalization, the ability to make the words transform our very personalities and change the very essence of our beings. Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh interprets the word Shma as coming from the two letter noun Ma which means intestines; the words of G-d must get into our innards, into our very kishkes, until they remake us into different people.
G-d is ready to enter into a covenant, but he will only do so if we understand the life changing ramifications of his words. Most people listen superficially and do not expect to internalize what they hear. This is not enough to merit a Divine covenant. A story is told that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter the 19th century founder of the Ethicist (Mussar) movement once found himself stranded in Kovno for the Sabbath. Everyone wished to invite him, but when he discovered that the local baker had no young mouths to feed at home and so he wouldn't be taking away anyone's portion of food, the great rabbi accepted the bakers invitation. The baker was an observant Jew but hardly a great torah scholar or even a man of great intelligence. He entered his house with a revered luminary, and immediately bellowed: "Yidineh, wife why are the challot not covered? How many times must I remind you?" The woman, immediately recognizing her distinguished guest, had tears in her eyes as she secured the challah cover which had already been prepared. The baker full of self pride then invited Rav Yisrael to sanctify the wine "one moment", said the sage "can you tell me why we cover the challot?" he asked. "Of course revered Rabbi" responded the baker, "every child knows the answer when there are many different foods on the table, the first blessing is always made over the bread after which no other blessing need be made. On Friday night however the first blessing has to be made over the wine therefore, so as not to shame the challah who expects the blessing over her, we must cover her over until after the sanctification of the wine". Rav Yisrael looked at the baker incredulously "why do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying? Do you think that our Jewish tradition does not understand that a piece of dough has no feelings and would never become embarrassed? Understand that our laws are trying to sensitize us to the feelings of human beings, our friends, our neighbors and especially our wives".
Only when the Jews were ready to internalize in their guts was G-d ready to establish his covenant with them.