Before giving the Torah to B'nai Yisrael, God approached several other nations, and asked them if they wanted to accept the Torah and its commandments. Each of the other nations turned God down. But when God approached the Israelites, they asked, "How much do they cost?" When they heard that the commandments were free, the Israelites responded, "Okay, we'll take 10!"
This tasteless joke plays upon the stereotype of Jew as money-grubber, much along the lines of the cockroach scene in the film, "Borat." While Sacha Baron Cohen might have just been trying to poke fun at anti-Semitism, the joke about the commandments is often told by self-hating Jews who internalize a stereotype.
You might be surprised, then, to find out that this joke finds its roots in rabbinic literature, in Masechet Avodah Zarah of the Talmud, as well as in the Mechilta, an early midrashic work. However, these rabbinic texts have different punch lines than the joke. In the Mechilta, after the Torah and its commandments are rejected by the other nations and God approaches B'nai Yisrael, their response is naaseh v'nishma — "We will do and we will listen." Our ancestors had so much faith that they were willing to accept the Torah and to enter into a covenant with God even before hearing the terms of the deal.
If we look in Parashat Yitro, the words naaseh v'nishma do not appear in the verses preceding the Ten Commandments. They appear in next week's portion, Mishpatim. But the Mechilta and later commentaries by Nachmanides and others posit that B'nai Yisrael said naaseh v'nishma before receiving the commandments. In fact, some commentators assert that all of Mishpatim took place before the events in Yitro.
Regardless of when the words were uttered, they are meaningful beyond their immediate context. They suggest that Judaism places an emphasis on actions.
Many of us learned to observe Jewish laws and customs, and only later learned to appreciate the reasons behind them. Many of us also learned to read Hebrew and pray the traditional Jewish liturgy before we knew what the words meant, let alone accepted their philosophical underpinnings.
Just Do It!
Some say that it's meaningless to teach children to recite blessings that invoke the name of God before they understand the concept of God, let alone believe in God. Others see value in teaching the blessings first, and then adding layers of meaning as the child grows up. Yet we would lose valuable teaching opportunities if we waited to teach our children to recite brachot and perform religious rituals until they were old enough to comprehend God on a philosophical level.
From a pedagogical point of view, the same could be said about teaching Hebrew. While some educators are opposed to "drill and kill" Hebrew-reading exercises and view the decoding of Hebrew letters as "rote," there is value in teaching Hebrew when children's language acquisition skills are at their peak. Then, after the child has learned the basics, meaning can be attached to the words the child already knows how to read.
We learn from Nehama Leibowitz that "religious training should not proceed from mind to deed, from reason to action. The educator need not appeal to the student's understanding through oral persuasion in the hope that conviction will ultimately lead to the appropriate actions."
We can all climb the ladder of mitzvot by committing ourselves to a "leap of action," as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asserted. The history, theology and other levels of meaning can be added later on, as we become more comfortable with the actions.
In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel and naaseh v'nishma, pick one of the 613 commandments — and just do it!
Rabbi Lisa Malik is the religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown.