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Parashat Mishpatim

February 10, 2010

By Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

In Parashat Mishpatim we reach the pivot point of the Book of Exodus. Until now we have been engaged with the exciting history of our ancestors’ release from slavery in Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Mount Sinai. In the following weeks, our Exodus studies guide us through the vision and building of the Mishkan (portable Tabernacle) in the wilderness; the narrative about which is interrupted for a few chapters to recount the episode of the golden calf.

In Parashat Mishpatim Moses receives laws on worship, slavery (or serfdom, or servitude), property, moral behavior, Sabbaths and festivals. These laws immediately follow the Ten Commandments (in Parashat
from last Shabbat); enhancing and extending them into the mini-law code often called the Book of the Covenant. Parashat Mishpatim concludes with our ancestors’ affirmation of the Covenant.

Moses first brings God’s laws to our ancestors, speaking all that he, Moses, alone has heard. The people reply and affirm, “All the things that the Eternal has commanded we will do!” After recording the laws, Moses sets up an altar and twelve pillars (one for each tribe) at the foot of the mountain, where he and his assistants make sacrifices and offerings. (Exodus 24:3-6).

For a second time Moses brings God’s commands to our ancestors, reading the record of the Covenant out loud to all. The people reply and affirm, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear!” (Exodus 24:7)

Not just “we will do” (na’aseh, in Hebrew) but now, in conclusion, they affirm “we will do and we will hear” (na’aseh v’nishma, in Hebrew).

Our Torah commentators throughout the generations make much of this apparent reversal of action, expecting, as most of us might, that “hearing” comes before “doing.” Haven’t they just “heard” what Moses said and then read?

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, in her marvelous book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, writes about this reversal of order, of “doing” before “hearing,” and considers it to signify “an uncalculating readiness to obey.” She brings in the work of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995, Talmudic commentator and philosopher, born in Lithuania and naturalized in France in 1930) who characterizes this readiness to obey as “engendered only in relationship to the face of the Other.” Hearing implies an acknowledgment of obligation to the One speaking.

Leaving for more in-depth study Zornberg’s vast range of classical Jewish interpretations and Midrashic sources, literary allusions and ideas from philosophy and psychology that pervade all her Torah commentaries, what is our “take away”? What might “doing” before “hearing” mean for people like us in our day and time?

The first way to understand this reversal of “doing” and then “hearing” is to make it the way we choose to respond to God’s commands. Our commitment as Jews should engender a “readiness to obey.”

We will take what Torah we know already, however little or much that might be, do that Torah and then hear about it.

What’s there to hear? We need to hear how well we did the Torah we already know.

When’s there to hear? In prayer. To pray means to judge one’s self. We can judge how we “did” the Torah we know. We can be infused with holy words and struggle to converse with God, to make our sacrifices and offerings through the fixed words of the prayer book and from the words of our own souls.

What else is there to hear? The next piece of Torah. Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) teaches about acquiring study partners and teachers, about learning a small amount of Torah each day and about how each gathering, however small, requires words of Torah to be spoken.

The Divine Presence that dwelt in the Mishkan continues to dwell among those praying and studying Torah and continues to guide those doing Torah. Ask your rabbi, cantor or other teachers how the words “Divine Presence,” “Mishkan” and “neighbor” are related in the Hebrew language.

The drama of the Book of Exodus pivots away from redemption and revelation to preparation for sustaining God’s presence among the people. God will continue to speak and our ancestors committed themselves to continuing to do and to hear.

Through action, prayer and Torah study we acknowledge our obligation and commitment to the One speaking and our recognition of God’s continual presence. We must challenge ourselves and others in the continual “doing” and “hearing” of Torah. I believe our very lives and souls depend on it.


A member of both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts
Boards of Rabbis, Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath, AJR ’07, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Achim and the Jewish Community House – a 100-year-old progressive, independent congregation in the heart of Taunton, Mass.