Posted on March 23, 2011
by Charlene Thrope
February 13, 2010 / 29 Shevat 5770
Right after the revelation at Mount Sinai, Parashat Mishpatim contains a long list of laws. Ranging from slaves to kashrut, this list is diverse and potentially overwhelming. Yet, the Israelites respond to Moses, “na’aseh v’nishma.” Translated as “we will do and we will understand,” this phrase can be interpreted in more than one way.
Perhaps the Israelites are promising to follow the mitzvot and then to understand their meaning later. Because of the events that occurred at Mount Sinai, the Israelites are motivated to observe the mitzvot. Their faith is so strong that they are willing to follow rules without much explanation. However, this enthusiasm could also be seen as impulsive and meaningless. The Israelites will obey God because they are told to, not because they find value in the mitzvot.
Alternatively, doing and understanding simultaneously shows the Israelites’ faith and also their desire to learn. They want to know why slaves must be released after six years and why a kid should not be cooked in its mother’s milk. Both the action and the meaning behind it are essential, and the Israelites demonstrate this concept through the hands-on learning of following mitzvot.
Learning from the Israelites, we should not just do – we must also understand. We should not donate to Tikkun Olam just because someone tells us to – we must know where our money is going. We should not pray just because it is mandatory – we must understand what the words mean. We should not advocate for Israel just because we feel an obligation – we must develop our own personal connections. Without understanding, our actions can be nothing more than actions, but if we infuse them with meaning, they can be meaningful learning opportunities.