"We Shall Do and We Shall Hear"
Summarized by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
At the end of parashat Mishpatim, we find a unit that appears to have no connection with the rest of the parasha: berit ha-aganot, the covenant of the basins (of sacrificial blood). The Rishonim were divided as to where this unit belongs. The great majority of those who explicate the peshat the literal level of the text maintain that the Torah presents it in its proper chronological place, following the Revelation at Sinai and the acceptance of all of the laws in parashat Mishpatim. Ramban, however, invokes the principle that "there is no chronological order in the Torah," and posits that this episode took place prior to the Revelation at Sinai.
In this regard, Ramban follows the lead of Chazal in the Midrash and in the Gemara. In fact, the Gemara (Keritut 9a) uses this as the basis for determining the necessary components of conversion:
Just as Bnei Yisrael received the Torah only after circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood [on the altar], so too every individual who seeks to convert can do so only through circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood [on the altar].
The Gemara draws a parallel between the way in which Bnei Yisrael came under the wings of the Divine Presence, and the way in which every individual goes about doing this, for all generations. How, then, is it possible, in our times without a Temple and no possibility of offering sacrifices for a person to convert to Judaism? The Gemara deduces from the word "le-doroteikhem" ("for your generations") that the conversion process must be able to take place even in the absence of the Temple. Hence, the Gemara concludes that the offering of a sacrifice is not a necessary precondition when the Temple does not exist. In our times, then, conversion is effected through circumcision and immersion alone.
This raises the question of whether the sacrifice was a necessary precondition in Temple times, or whether even then the sacrifice was not essential. The Gemara does not address this question, but the Rishonim debate it. The strictest view maintains that when the Temple stood the sacrifice was mandatory; without it, the convert would not be counted as part of the nation of Israel. On the other hand, some contend that even in Temple times, the sacrifice was not a prerequisite for conversion; rather, after a person had been circumcised and immersed, he was required to bring a sacrifice for a secondary reason unconnected to the process of his acceptance into the nation.
Rambam (Hilkhot Mechusarei Kappara 1:2) adopts an intermediate view. He explains that so long as the Temple stood, the conversion was valid even without a sacrifice, but a proselyte who had not offered a sacrifice was accepted only partially into the nation. Specifically, he could not yet eat sanctified foods, for he was not yet a "full convert." According to this view, failure to offer the sacrifice would not prevent a proselyte from becoming part of Am Yisrael, but it would prevent him from doing so completely. This conclusion demands a clarification of the significance of this sacrifice, which plays such a decisive role in the complete acceptance of the convert. This, in turn, requires that we re-examine last week's parasha Yitro.
Parashat Yitro recounts the episode that preceded the giving of the Torah, which according to the above approach took place along with the "covenant of the basins" that is our subject of discussion. In this episode, God tells Moshe, "So shall you say to the House of Yaakov, and tell the House of Yisrael" (19:3). Chazal explain: "'So shall you say' in gentle language 'and tell' with harsh words" (Mekhilta, de-ba-Chodesh, 2). After this episode, we wait to hear what words God will convey to Bnei Yisrael prior to the giving of the Torah will they be soft words or harsh demands? Moshe relays God's words to the people, telling them:
You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings, and have brought you to Me. And now, if you will hearken to My voice and observe My covenant, then you shall be special to Me from among all the nations, for all of the earth is Mine. And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; these are the words that you shall speak to Bnei Yisrael. (19:4-6)
Are these harsh words? Admittedly, being "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" is very demanding, but is it harsh? Clearly not. God is talking here about Israel being a "chosen" or "special" nation, elected from among all other nations. God owns the entire world, and who does He choose? Us!
This message is not what the midrash was referring to when it spoke of "harsh words." But to join Am Yisrael a person needs more than just acceptance and soft words. Sacrifice is necessary, too. This idea is expressed in the covenant of the basins. So long as Am Yisrael would only "accept" the Torah, with no sacrifice or commitment on their part, they would not yet have assumed their full place under the wings of the Divine Presence.
We encounter an additional tension in the parasha. When Moshe first tells the nation about his ascent to the mountain, their response is, "All that God has spoken, we shall do" (24:3). Later, they declare, "We shall do and we shall hear" (24:7). What lies in between these two reactions? The covenant of the basins. One could think that that this is a negative development: prior to the covenant of the basins, Am Yisrael accepted the Torah obediently and unreservedly; they their entire existence was devoted only to the fulfillment of Torah and the performance of the commandments. Yet when they declare, "We shall do and we shall hear," this indicates that they also want to understand. Where is the unquestioning obedience? Bnei Yisrael, after the covenant of the basins, have suddenly become philosophers!
Such a view would be mistaken; there is no negative development over the course of the parasha. We need to understand how this change represents progress in the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and God.
God does not demand our blind, unquestioning fulfillment of His commandments. This would nullify the purpose of our intelligence; it would leave no room for understanding, for humanity and individualism. The Torah teaches us there is a level of "We shall do" blind performance with no personal inclinations, requiring absolute sacrifice and commitment. Higher than that is the level where a person comes to understand the commandments and explores the depth of their meaning; this is "We shall do and we shall hear."
Admittedly, the Torah requires that a person sacrifice not only an offering, but sometimes also his human intelligence and understanding on the altar of Torah observance. It is inconceivable that a person might perform only those commandments that he understands, or only those to which he accedes. Ultimately, however, what God desires is not blind obedience, but rather that we understand and internalize the values that underlie His commandments. In the terminology of the beit midrash, we may say that He wants not only bekiut, but principally iyun.
This is the progress that Am Yisrael achieved following the covenant of the basins. In the wake of their declaration that they were ready to sacrifice their own will and their own intelligence in order to fulfill the commandments "We shall do" they came to understand that God wants each person not only to fulfill, but also to understand and internalize "We shall do and we shall hear."
The level of understanding that is required of each person has been subject to debate throughout the generations, as reflected, for example, in the controversy over finding reasons for the mitzvot. Ultimately, though, we accept that God is not looking for robots to serve Him. Rather, He seeks true servants who serve Him out of an understanding and internalization of His values - not only "we shall do," but also "we shall hear."
"And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said: All that God has spoken we shall do and we shall hear."
[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim 5765 (2005).]